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Boris Johnson claims new Covid strain may be more fatal - but UK CMO warns data 'not yet strong' enough

B117 emerged in the the south east of the country last September.

Boris Johnson during a media briefing today
Boris Johnson during a media briefing today
Image: PA

UK PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson has claimed that the new UK variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 may be associated with a higher mortality rate.

It comes after the UK reported another 1,401 deaths due to Covid-19 and an additional 40,261 confirmed infections today.

The total number of deaths in the UK due to the virus is now 95,981, with new records for daily deaths recorded on two days this week.

The new variant of SARS-CoV-2 – known as B117 – emerged in the the south east of the country last September but began to transmit rapidly over Christmas.

A study by London’s Imperial College found that B117 raises the R number by between 0.4 and 0.7 – meaning those who catch it will pass it on to 40-70% more people than they would if they had previous variants.

Speaking at a press conference today, Johnson said that although there was “a lot of uncertainty” around statistics, there was a concern that B117 was responsible for an increase in deaths among patients with Covid-19.

“We’ve been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant[...] may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he said.

However, the British government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said that data on the UK variant which has been collated so far is “not yet strong” enough to draw such conclusions.

He also warned that there was “no real evidence of an increase in mortality” among those in hospital with the variant, but added that B117 could be more fatal among some patients.

“These data are currently uncertain and we don’t have a very good estimate of the precise nature or indeed whether it is an overall increase, but it looks like it is,” he said.

Vallance explained that for a man in their 60s, the average risk was that for a thousand people who got infected, roughly 10 would be expected to die – whereas with the new variant it might be 13 or 14.

He also said that there was growing evidence from multiple sources that vaccines against Covid-19 will work against the UK strain.

However, he said there was less certainty about the vaccines’ efficacy against those which had appeared in other countries, such as Brazil and South Africa.

“We are more concerned that they have certain features that they might be less susceptible to vaccines,” he said.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan reported on Christmas Day that the UK variant was present in Ireland.

Data from testing in recent weeks suggests that B117 has become more prevalent in the weeks since, with around half of all new infections in recent weeks as a result of the UK strain.

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With reporting from Press Association.

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