“This increased lethality, in addition to the increased transmissibility, means that this version of the virus presents a substantial challenge to healthcare systems and policymakers,” said Dr. Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading in the U.K., who was not involved in the research.
“It also makes it even more important people get vaccinated when called,” he told the Science Media Centre in London.
The authors of the new study were able to deduce which patients acquired a B.1.1.7 infection thanks to a glitch in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for the virus.
The test works by amplifying the sequences of three of the virus’s genes, but the new variant has a mutation in one of these — a gene that codes for its spike proteins.
The mutation prevents the amplification of this gene in B.1.1.7, so the test detects only two out of the three genes. This allows researchers to estimate how many people of those tested have contracted the new variant.
“It was fortunate the mutation happened in a part of the genome covered by routine testing,” says one of the authors, Ellen Brooks-Pollock, Ph.D., senior lecturer in veterinary public health at the University of Bristol.
“Future mutations could arise and spread unchecked,” she adds.
The researchers hope their study will inform government and health officials’ response to this variant and others that are likely to emerge.
Senior author Leon Danon, Ph.D., associate professor in infectious disease epidemiology and data analytics at the University of Bristol, warns:
“SARS-CoV-2 appears able to mutate quickly, and there is a real concern that other variants will arise with resistance to rapidly rolled out vaccines. Monitoring for new variants as they arise, measuring their characteristics, and acting appropriately needs to be a key part of the public health response in the future.”
The authors note that by using matched pairs of patients, they could control for several potential biases in their estimate of increased mortality with B.1.1.7.
In particular, they matched each pair according to where they lived and the date of their positive test result.
This helped account for possible variations in hospital care, which came under increasing pressure as a second wave of infections began in the U.K. in autumn 2020.
However, Dr. Julian Tang, consultant virologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., told the Science Media Centre that he remained unconvinced by the results.
He pointed out that the researchers did not match participants for pre-existing conditions — known as “comorbidities” — that predispose [people] to more severe COVID-19, including diabetes and hypertension.
“Clinical teams know that the coldest winter temperatures occurring in January or February can exacerbate all the comorbidities that predispose to more severe outcomes of COVID-19,” he said.
He suggested that further analysis of COVID-19 outcomes during warmer months would be needed to account for the differential effects of the weather on people with these comorbidities.
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