'Some evidence' UK Covid variant more deadly than original virus, PM says

22 January 2021, 17:04 | Updated: 23 January 2021, 07:15

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

There is "some evidence" the new UK Covid variant is more deadly than the original virus, Boris Johnson has announced.

The prime minister said in addition to spreading more quickly, there is some evidence the new strain of coronavirus first identified in South East England "may be associated with a higher degree of mortality".

Mr Johnson was speaking alongside Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England Professor Chris Whitty and the government's Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) Sir Patrick Vallance during the Downing Street press briefing.

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It comes after the UK recorded a further 1,401 Covid-related deaths as of Friday, bringing the country's death toll to 95,981.

The prime minister told the press conference: "I must tell you this afternoon that we've been informed today that, in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant, the variant that was first identified in London and the South East, may be associated with a higher degree of mortality."

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Boris Johnson confirmed there is some evidence the new Covid variant is more deadly than the original
Boris Johnson confirmed there is some evidence the new Covid variant is more deadly than the original. Picture: PA

Clarifying Mr Johnson's comments, Sir Patrick said there is very early, "uncertain" evidence that is "not yet strong" that the UK variant is slightly more deadly than the older strain.

But he explained that if you took a sample of 1,000 men in their 60s with the original virus, roughly 10 would be likely to die. Whereas with the new strain, the death toll would be between 13 and 14.

The CSA also warned the variants which had emerged in South Africa and Brazil may be less susceptible to the vaccines that have been developed.

"We know less about how much more transmissible they are. We are more concerned that they have certain features that they might be less susceptible to vaccines," he said.

"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."

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However, he added that there is growing evidence from multiple sources that vaccines will work against the UK strain.

"There's increasing evidence from laboratory studies that the variant in the UK will be susceptible to the vaccines," he said.

"There's increasing confidence coupled with a very important clinical observation that individuals who have been infected previously and have generated antibodies appear to be equally protected against original virus and new variant."

Sir Patrick also said the UK strain transmits up to 70 per cent more easily than the original virus and that it can affect "anybody at any age".

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson told the briefing that there are 38,562 people in hospital with coronavirus, which is more than three-quarters higher than the first peak in April.

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"It's more important than ever that we all remain vigilant in following the rules and that we stay at home, protect the NHS and thereby save lives," the prime minister said.

He added: "All current evidence continues to show that both the vaccines we're currently using remain effective both against the old variant and this new variant."

The UK leader also said deaths will remain high for at least "a little while to come".

Sir Patrick echoed the prime minister, saying the "awful" death rate will stay "high for a little while" before declining, regardless of the impact of the new strain.

"The death rate is awful and it's going to stay, I'm afraid, high for a little while before it starts coming down, that was always what was predicted from the shape of this.

"I think the information about the new variant doesn't change that."

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