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New Virus Variant May Be Somewhat Deadlier, U.K. Warns

2021-01-22 22:49:10

LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to trumpet rare success in the campaign against the coronavirus on Friday: news that Britain had vaccinated 5.4 million people. At the end of the day, it was overtaken by a preliminary finding that a new variant of the virus may be more deadly than the original.

That possibility, raised by preliminary studies assuming a small number of deaths in severely affected hospitals, remains far from compelling. But the prospect that the rapidly spreading new variety, already known to be more contagious, could also be more deadly, fears that even with the advent of vaccines, the pandemic will remain a serious threat for some time to come.

Government scientists said the early evidence suggests the new variant, first discovered in Britain late last year, could increase the risk of death by about 30 percent. But even with such an increase, the vast majority of cases are not fatal, and cabinet estimates include a wide variety of possible effects.

“In addition to spreading faster,” Mr. Johnson said at a press conference in Downing Street, “it now also appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant first identified in London and the Southeast. – can be associated with higher mortality. "

The underlying evidence, set forth in a report published on Friday by a government scientific committee, was less emphatic than the prime minister, only saying there was a "realistic possibility" that the new variant was more deadly and outlined some inescapable limitations in the data.

“I would like to emphasize that there is a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and that we need more work to get a precise grip on them, but it is clearly a concern that this will entail both an increase in mortality and an increase in transferability. "said the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

For Mr Johnson, who has struggled to find a silver lining in Britain's response to the virus, it was not the first time that good news and bad went hand in hand. On December 30, the government announced approval of a homegrown vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca to put much of the country in tighter confinement hours later due to an increase in infections.

Britain's battle with the pandemic has increasingly become a race between vaccinating the public and fighting mutations in the virus, like the new variant now responsible for a significant percentage of new cases across the country . It's a battle that scientists say sparks both hope and fear.

"2021 will be a game of cat and mouse to see if we can vaccinate people fast enough to stay ahead of the variants," said Devi Sridhar, director of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh.

External experts said the early claims of higher mortality were far from resolved.

First, the studies were based on a small subgroup – about 8 percent – of total deaths in Britain, raising the possibility that the results "may therefore not be representative of the total population," the report said.

For another, less than 3 percent of known infections in Britain were fatal, so the effect of the new variant on mortality would have been measured in relatively small numbers, making it more difficult to determine with certainty.

In addition, the signs of higher death rates conflicted with the evidence suggesting that people with the new variant would not be hospitalized more than those infected with better established ones.

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Answers to your vaccine questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, medical providers and residents of long-term care facilities are likely to come first. If you want to understand how this decision comes about, this article will help you.

Life will only return to normal if society as a whole is given adequate protection against the corona virus. Once countries have approved a vaccine, they can vaccinate up to a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to becoming infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines offer robust protection against illness. But it is also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they are infected because they experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Scientists do not yet know whether the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for now, even vaccinated people will have to wear masks, avoid crowds indoors, and so on. Once enough people have been vaccinated, it will be very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society reach that goal, life could begin to approach almost normal by the fall of 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that may be approved this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that yielded these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it without having a cough or other symptoms. Researchers will study this question intensively as the vaccines hit the market. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will have to see themselves as potential spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is given as an injection into the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection will be no different from the one you received before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt momentary discomfort, including pain and flu-like symptoms that usually last for a day. People may need to take a day off from work or school after the second admission. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system coming into contact with the vaccine and triggering a powerful response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make coronavirus proteins that can stimulate the immune system. Each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules at any given time, which they produce to make proteins themselves. Once those proteins are made, our cells shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can survive for only a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is designed to resist the cell's enzymes for a little longer so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and elicit a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can take up to a few days to be destroyed.

In addition, scientists said a number of confounding factors – such as hospitals being overrun or the variant that may spread more aggressively in settings such as nursing homes – made it difficult to know for sure if it was, in fact, more deadly.

"We need more information before we jump to conclusions," said Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School.

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, noted that the report "went to great lengths to emphasize that the data is limited and the conclusions preliminary." But, he added, "an increased death rate is certainly possible with a virus that has improved its game in transmission."

The scientific studies on which the government relied have not been fully published and describe a wide range of possible effects of the new variant on mortality rates.

The report stressed that "the absolute risk of death per infection remains low." And whatever the death rate, scientists said the best answer to the new variety hadn't changed: lockdowns, face covers, and vaccines.

Britain had injected more than 400,000 people in the last 24 hours, keeping it on track to reach Mr Johnson's goal of vaccinating 15 million vulnerable people, nearly a quarter of the population, by mid-February. Per capita, only Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have done more. The United States and China have delivered more doses than Britain, but to a smaller percentage of their populations.

Mr. Vallance said there was no evidence that the vaccines used were ineffective against the variant first identified in Britain. But he expressed less certainty as to whether they offered comparable protection against variants that originated in South Africa and Brazil.

The warnings about the variant reflected the political crosswind that Mr Johnson faced in responding to the pandemic. The rapid rollout of vaccines will likely encourage members of his Conservative Party to renew their call to him to ease the lockdown. But scientists warn that a complete relaxation of restrictions, even after widespread vaccinations, could trigger another wave of infections.

The opposition Labor party criticized Mr Johnson for bringing another unwelcome surprise to the British public.

"This is very disturbing news, not least because Boris Johnson assured the nation in December that there was no evidence that the variant was more dangerous," Jonathan Ashworth, the Labor Party's shadow health secretary, said in a statement.

Mr. Johnson presented the news as evidence of his commitment to present changing scientific evidence to the public. He also advocated that people adhere to the rules of social distance, even though the vaccines promised a better future.

The warnings about the variant – first revealed by a prominent epidemiologist, Neil Ferguson, in a statement Friday to a well-connected television correspondent, Robert Peston – gave the prime minister choirs for that warning message.

"We really can't begin to consider unlocking until we are sure the vaccination program is working," said Mr. Johnson. "We have to lower that infection rate."


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