The mutated super-infectious coronavirus strain was spreading quickly among children during the November lockdown and only closing schools can keep it contained, a new report from Imperial College London has warned.
The study confirmed that the new mutant variant of SARS-CoV-2 – known as B117 or ‘Variant of Concern’ (VOC) – is indeed more infectious than previous variants, just as scientists feared, and that the November lockdown did little to suppress it.
Pictured: A graph in the Imperial College London report showing the prevalence of the new strain of coronavirus (shown in orange) in different age groups
The variant was most prevalent among the 10-19 age group, the data shows, with more coronavirus cases in the age group being found to be the new strain than of the original.
In order the tackle the spread of the VOC in Britain, ‘Social distancing measures will need to be more stringent than they would have otherwise,’ the report said.
‘A particular concern is whether it will be possible to maintain control over transmission while allowing schools to reopen in January 2021.’
Analysis of the data by Imperial College London researchers found that the new strain may be nearly 50 percent more transmissible, based on samples taken from nearly 86,000 Britons.
In the study posted online, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, Imperial College researchers determined that the ‘R’ number for the new B117 variant is between 0.4 and 0.7 points higher than other variants.
The study compared samples of the mutated virus taken from nearly 2,000 people in the UK to another 84,000 taken from people with other variants
The ‘R’ number of a virus describes the average number of additional cases that each infection leads to.
In the UK, the latest R number stands between 1.1 and 1.3, government figures show. This means that, on average, every 10 people infected will infect between 11 and 13 other people.
Graphs from the new study show how, over eight weeks, the new variant became increasingly common (dots higher on each chart) in the UK and became more transmissible (dots further the right on each chart show rising R numbers, or transmission rates
In a series of graphs, the report outlined case trends in a subset of NHS England Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) areas – (a geographic subdivision of NHS Regions).
It is clear in the graphs that while the November lockdown worked to bring down the rates of the original strain of coronavirus, it did little to suppress the spread of the mutated strain in England.
This is demonstrated by the graphs with three lines showing case numbers.
The thick line shows the total number of cases in the respective region found among the people included in the study. The green line shows the original strain of Covid-19 (S+), while the yellow line shows the new variant (VOC).
The thick line at the top of the graph showing the total number of cases in each area changes colour between green and yellow based on the number of tests showing instances of the VOC among those included in the study.
Pictured: Screen-grabs from the Imperial College report showing case trends involving the new strain of coronavirus, where the % S- rate indicates a case of the new variant. During the lockdown, Kent and Medway showed increasing numbers of the new Covid-19 strain. Mid and South Essex saw a similar rise in cases in the weeks before and after the lockdown ended. Both regions saw cases of the VOC overtake case numbers of the original strain
The dates of the second lockdown in November are indicated by the vertical red lines, between which the spread of Covid-19 and the VOC are demonstrated.
Areas in the South East of England – including London – show a rapid rise of the mutated strain of Covid-19, while the original strain kept at relatively low levels during the lockdown – showing the prevalence of the new strain in those areas.
These include Kent and Medway, Mid and South Essex; South West London Health and Care Partnership; and Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West.
In areas outside of the regions most effected by the VOC , total cases are shown to have dropped during the lockdown.
These include Birmingham and Solihull; Devon; Herefordshire and Worcestershire; Cheshire and Merseyside; and Humber, Coast and Vale.
Cases of the VOC in South West London Health and Care Partnership also rose in the final weeks of lockdown, and have continued to do so since. The number of cases of the new strain over took those of the original. Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West also saw rising case numbers in the last week of lockdown, with numbers of the new strain rising
In both Bingmingam and Solihull and in Devon, case number of the first Covid-19 strain dropped during the lockdown, while cases of the VOC remained low into the last weeks of 2020
In Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and Cheshire and Merseyside, total cases dropped during lockdown without the spike in new cases of the VOC
Humber, Coast and Vale also saw cases of the original strain of Covid-19 drop during lockdown and avoided the rise in new cases of the VOC. Right: A graph showing ratio age share among S- cases / age share among S+ cases
The new variant was first detected in the UK in September, the study states, but at the beginning of December, it exploded and has driven a surge in infections among Britons.
The spread of the new novel SARS-CoV-2 variant, or Variant of Concern 202012/01 (VOC), in England comes despite a tiered system being in place as part of efforts to bring the spread of the virus under control.
The majority of England is under ‘Tier 4’, the strictest tier, yet is still seeing record numbers of daily Covid-19 infections despite the measures.
Imperial College London researchers sequenced the genomes of 1,904 people infected with the new variant and compared how quickly the virus spread to a broader sample of other specimens taken from more than 48,000 people in England.
What is the ‘mutant COVID strain’ and why are experts concerned?
Coronaviruses mutate regularly, acquiring about one new mutation in their genome every two weeks.
Most mutations do not significantly change the way the virus acts.
This super strain, named B.1.1.7, was first identified in the UK in November.
It has since been found in France, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan, Singapore, Australia and now the United States.
The new COVID-19 variant has a mutation in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein at position 501, where amino acid asparagine (N) has been replaced with tyrosine (Y).
It is more infectious than previous strains and potentially more harmful to children.
It is not, however, believed to be any more lethal.
Public Health England researchers compared 1,769 people infected with the new variant, with 1,769 who had one of the earlier strains of the virus.
Forty-two people in the group were admitted to hospital, of whom 16 had the new variant and 26 the wild type.
Twelve of the variant cases and 10 of the ‘older’ virus cases died within four weeks of testing.
Neither the hospitalization nor the mortality differences were statistically significant.
As they expected, they found that the new virus did indeed have a ‘selective advantage over circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants in England,’ they wrote in the print posted online on Thursday.
The variant was also disproportionately common among people in their 20s, and those living in South East and East England and London.
The findings of the new study mean each person who catches this mutated virus will pass it on to up to 0.7 more people on average.
So far, there isn’t evidence to suggest the new variant causes any more serious illness or is more fatal.
Encouragingly, virologists and public health experts believe that vaccines made by companies like AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna will still be effective against the new variant of coronavirus.
But the new variant heats up the race between the spread of the virus and vaccination campaigns in the UK, the US – where the new variant has now been found in Colorado, California and Florida – and at least 31 other countries where the more infectious form of coronavirus has been detected.
With more than 186,000 people newly infected in a single day on average in the US, the 48 percent higher transmissibility rate of 1.85 could drive new infections per day beyond 275,000.
It could spell disaster for hospitals in hotspots like California where some health care systems and regions are already out of ICU beds, in states of ‘internal disaster’ and rationing care.
There are similar fears in the UK over the National Health Service (NHS) and its capacity to cope with the number of coronavirus patients that are expected as the new variant of the disease continues to spread.
Sharing data from a separate study done by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Deepti Gurdasani – a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London in Epidemiology and statistical genetics – warned that ‘B117 is either dominant, or very close to dominant in most regions’ in England.
Over the course of six weeks, the researchers saw how the new coronavirus variant’s transmission rate (R) became higher (orange) than those of other variants, especially in South East England, East England and London
By comparison, on average in the US, each infected person currently leads to 1.15 more infections, according to daily calculations from RT.live.
By this measure of transmissibility the R number in the US ranges from about 0.86 in Alaska to 1.23 in Maine, which has emerged as a hotspot this week.
Only 3.17 million Americans had been vaccinated as of Friday, according to a Bloomberg News tally.
The CDC’s tally puts the number even lower. The agency’s site says its vaccination tracker will be updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but at the time of publication, the tool showed Wednesday’s numbers, with 2.79 million people vaccinated.
Bloomberg’s higher estimate means Operation Warp Speed has vaccinated just 16 percent of the 20 million Americans it promised to inoculate by the end of the year.
At this pace, it would take nearly a decade to vaccinate all adult members of America’s population of 331 million people.
And many Americans remain on the fence about getting a vaccine even when one is available. Some 60 percent of nursing home workers in Ohio said they would refuse a shot.
Sluggish, dysfunctional vaccine distribution and Americans’ distrust of of the shots could jointly offer the B117 variant just the opening it needs to spread like wildfire through the country infecting millions beyond the 20 million people who have already had the infection in the US, and killing thousands.