A version of Covid-19 first detected in Kent may be more deadly than the original strain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the nation on Friday night (January 22).

It was already known that the variant of coronavirus was more infectious and a key reason for the Government introducing a third national lockdown.

But after a week in which hospitals – including the intensive care unit at Salisbury District Hospital – warned of rising deaths, rising patient numbers and a greater number of younger people falling seriously ill, the Government has revealed some data suggests this new strain is deadlier, too.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said that while there was still a “lot of uncertainty” around the data, it was a matter “of concern” that as well as spreading more quickly, the mutant strain could also lead to more deaths.

Below we recap what he said and the views of 5 other experts, who have different takes on how worrying this news is - and it's not all doom and gloom.

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Coronavirus latest in the Salisbury area

Fears South Africa and Brazil variants may trouble vaccine

Sir Patrick Vallance also told a No 10 news conference that there was some evidence that coronavirus variants which had appeared in South Africa and Brazil may be less susceptible to approved Covid-19 vaccines than the original strains.

And he suggested, based on early evidence, the new Kent variant could increase the mortality rate by nearly a third for men in their 60s who have Covid-19.

For a thousand people in that group who became infected with the old variant, roughly 10 would be expected to die – whereas with the new variant it might be 13 or 14, with similar increases in mortality rates across the age ranges.

“I want to stress that there’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it.

"But it obviously is of concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility, as it appears of today,” he said.

He said that while there was growing evidence that the vaccines would be effective against the UK variant, there was uncertainty over how well it would work against those from South Africa and Brazil.

“We know less about how much more transmissible they are. We are more concerned that they have certain features that might (make them) be less susceptible to vaccines.

“They are definitely of more concern than the one in the UK at the moment, and we need to keep looking at it and studying it very carefully.”

He stressed the evidence remained uncertain and that there was no sign the South African or Brazilian variants had any “transmission advantages” over those in the UK and so would not be expected to spread more quickly or “take over”.

Salisbury Journal: Boris Johnson

But what is the early scientific consensus on how worried we should be by these new findings?

Here are the views of 5 different experts.

1 - Too early to tell

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of Sage subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said that it was still too early to be drawing “strong conclusions” about the suggested increased mortality rates from the new Covid variant.

Referring to the news about the variant announced by Boris Johnson on Friday, he said: “I was actually quite surprised the news had been announced at a new conference.

“It seems to have gone up a little bit from about 10 people per thousand to about 13 which is quite a small rise but it’s based on a relatively small amount of data.

“I would be wanting to wait for a week or two more, monitoring a little bit more before we draw really strong conclusions about this.”

Speaking on BBC Breakfast he added: “I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong.”

It was already known that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original – leading to a tightening of restrictions across the UK from late December onwards.

2 - Pressure on hospitals will continue

Salisbury Journal:

Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, suggested the pressure seen on hospitals this year - which is already much higher than the worst of the peak in April 2020 - could be down to changes in the virus.

It had been thought this was because the virus was more contagious, but it could also be due to the UK/Kent variant being more lethal.

He said the latest findings suggested it was responsible for the “unexpectedly high” numbers of hospital admissions, especially around London.

“While the recent results showing declining case numbers is good news, and suggest that the variant is controllable via existing measures, these results on deaths imply that burden in hospitals will continue to be high requiring a more prolonged period of restrictions,” he said.

3 - 'Not a game changer'

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said it is still an “open question” whether the new variant coronavirus is more deadly.

Prof Medley was co-author of a report by the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which concluded there was a “realistic possibility” that it was associated with an increased risk of death.

However he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that it was not a “game changer” in terms of dealing with the pandemic.

“The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open.

"There is evidence it is more dangerous but this is a very dangerous virus,” he said.

“In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”

4 - Research could impact lockdown rules

Professor Sir Mark Walport, a former government chief scientific adviser and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned the new research may call for a tougher and/or longer lockdown.

He said even stricter measures may be needed if cases do not continue falling “at pace”.

“Decisions are going to have to be made on the basis of the evidence,” he told BBC news.

“If the evidence shows that the decrease in cases isn’t continuing, then clearly policymakers will have to consider much tougher measures.”

5 - Vaccine concerns are more worrying

Salisbury Journal: Cubicles erected inside Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, for people to receive an injection of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday January 16, 2021. The historic site is acting as a venue for the Sarum South Primary Care Networ

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School, suggested the more serious concern was not the research on a relatively small increase in mortality.

Instead, he is more worried about the evidence that the South African and Brazilian variants may be less susceptible to the vaccines.

“The other virus variants identified in South Africa and Brazil are more worrying as they carry more changes in the spike protein of the virus,” he said.

“It is important that we now determine the neutralising ability of antibodies against virus variants generated in response to vaccination and study the immune response in individuals infected with virus variants.”

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