LONDON—British officials warned Friday that a coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K. might be more lethal as well as more transmissible than previous versions of the pathogen.
The conclusions of scientists advising the British government are still highly uncertain. But British Prime Minister
said in a televised address that the variant—which has caused Covid-19 infections across the U.K. to spike and is spreading rapidly in the U.S.—could result in higher death rates.
U.S. federal health authorities have said it is likely to become the dominant variant in the U.S. by March.
“We have been informed today that, in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant—the variant that was first identified in London and the South East—may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” said Mr. Johnson.
The tentative conclusions come as British hospitals cope with more Covid-19 patients than at any time during the pandemic. The Covid-19 death toll in the U.K. is expected to pass 100,000 in the coming week.
The development heightens the importance of an effective rollout of vaccines, which is further ahead in the U.K. than elsewhere in Europe. Almost 5.4 million people had received at least one shot of a vaccine in the U.K. as of Thursday.
The government’s chief scientific adviser,
cautioned that the data about the death rates associated with the variant were still highly uncertain.
In hospitalized Covid cases there appeared to be no increase in mortality. But among the population at large, deaths were higher among those who had the new variant, he said. Out of 1,000 60 year-olds with the new variant, some 13 to 14 would be expected to die, compared with around 10 deaths per 1000 with the old variant, according to Mr. Vallance.
Mr. Vallance said so far vaccines appear to neutralize the new variant, which government scientists estimate spreads 30% to 70% faster than previous versions.
Until now, British scientists had said there was no evidence that the variant discovered at the end of 2020 caused more severe disease or death, only that it spread more quickly than the previous version.
Officials on Friday said it didn’t appear that the new variant would evade the impact of vaccines, even if it does increase mortality.
Write to Max Colchester at [email protected]
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