New Covid strain could increase R rate by up to 0.93, NERVTAG paper reveals

20 December 2020, 17:21

Much of the South East of England has been put into Tier 4 restrictions due to the new Covid strain, with Londoners told to stay at home.
Much of the South East of England has been put into Tier 4 restrictions due to the new Covid strain, with Londoners told to stay at home. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

Newly released minutes from the government’s key NERVTAG group reveal that the new variant of Covid-19 could increase the R rate by up to 0.93.

The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) met on Friday and provided the evidence that led to governments across the UK introducing harsh lockdowns.

Minutes from the meeting confirmed that the growth rate of the new strain, labelled VUI-202012/01, is estimated to be 71 per cent higher than other variants.

However, the opinion summary from NERVTAG reveals for the first time that the new variant could result in an “absolute increase in the R-value of between 0.39 and 0.93”.

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At his press conference on Saturday, Boris Johnson and his advisors only mentioned the lower bound, telling the public: "NERVTAG early analysis suggests the new variant could increase the R by 0.4 or more”.

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NERVTAG member Dr Ben Killingley told LBC’s Swarbrick on Sunday that an increase in the R “of even 0.4” could mean the pandemic grows much faster.

He added: “We haven’t seen an increase in death rates of hospitalised patients with the new strain.”

“We haven’t seen the evidence that this new strain is seeing a higher fatality rate yet.”

In a positive note, Dr Killingley said: “It is not a big enough change in the virus that either the tests won’t work, or importantly, we still think the vaccines developed to date will still work. The virus has changed a bit but not much.”

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The minutes also note that the new strain “can be challenging to sequence so estimates of frequency of this variant may be underestimates”.

Even during the national lockdown, the strain “demonstrated exponential growth”, NERVTAG added.

They conclude: “NERVTAG has moderate confidence that VUI-202012/01 demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”

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Dr Killingley told LBC: “It will transmit in the same way, there isn’t anything different we need to do to avoid transmission.

“It is still about reducing our contacts, it is still about washing hands, it is still about wearing face masks when you are out and about.

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“The key things that we need to do don’t change, but we just need to do them better and be more cognisant of them.”

The spread of the new variant in the UK has led to travel bans being implemented by a growing number of countries.

The Netherlands were the first to announce a ban, with Italy, Austria, Belgium and Ireland others also implementing new travel restrictions.

Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead at the World Health Organisation, said the variant had also been identified in Denmark, Australia and the Netherlands.

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