New U.K. SARS-CoV-2 variant may cause more severe illness, study finds

More than one year into the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), new variants have emerged, causing concerns vaccines may not work quite so well against some of them.

In the United Kingdom, a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, called the variant of concern VOC 202012/01 or B.1.1.7 emerged, and has gained a foothold across the globe. Many countries are reporting a sudden surge of cases tied to this new variant.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine revealed that the VOC 202012/01 variant is not only fast-spreading and easily transmissible but also may cause more severe illness.

U.K. health experts reported the presence of a new variant in December 2020. Initial reports based on limited preliminary evidence showed that the variant is more infectious but may not cause more severe illness. Later, another new variant was discovered in South Africa.

Though the U.K. variant was reported to the World Health Organization on December 14, 2020, it has been spreading since September 20.

Increased severity

The study, published on the pre-print server medRxiv*, shows that the new variant is easily transmissible, but it also increases the risk of severe disease.

The researchers analyzed a large database of SARS-CoV-2 community test results and COVID-19 deaths for England to arrive at the study findings. This dataset represented about 47 percent of all SARS-CoV-2 tests, and 7 percent of COVID-19 deaths between September 1, 2020, and January 22, 2021.

The tests used in the study can detect mutations like the VOC 202012/01 because mutations in this lineage avert polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of the spike gene target.

The study analysis focused on deaths within the first 28 days after receiving a COVID-19 diagnosis. Evidence shows that infection with the new variant may be tied to higher viral loads, as measured by Ct values detected during a PCR test.

Further, the increased viral loads resulting from infection with the new variant may be associated with the observed increase in deaths tied to COVID-19. The team believes that this may result from the reduced effectiveness of standard antiviral treatments for COVID-19.

The team previously showed that the VOC 202012/01 variant could be transmitted faster than other variants across the globe. However, they could not estimate if it increases or decreases disease severity. However, in the current study, the team found that the fatality rate among infected patients with the new variant is higher than the deaths tied to the preexisting variants.

Specifically, the team revealed that in males between the ages of 55 and 69, the risk of death from COVID-19 increased from 0.56 percent to 0.73 percent over the 28 days following a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result.

“Our analysis suggests that VOC 202012/01 is not only more transmissible than preexisting SARS-CoV-2 variants but may also cause more severe illness,” the researchers concluded in the study.

The team noted that the study findings are consistent with analyses by other groups utilizing different methods and tools to verify the heightened risk of death among community-tested persons.

To date, there are more than 106 million confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection worldwide. Of these, over 2.32 million have died, while 59.36 million people have recovered.

The United States remains the country with the highest number of cases, reaching 27 million. India and Brazil follow with more than 10.83 million and 9.52 million cases, respectively.

The other countries with high case tolls include the U.K., with more than 3.97 million cases, Russia, with over 3.93 million cases, France, with over 3.4 million cases, and Spain, with 2.98 million cases.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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