Story at a glance

  • The U.K. COVID-19 strain, B.1.1.7, could be more fatal than its original form.
  • Pharmaceutical companies are working to address any gaps in their vaccines.

One of the COVID-19 variants that originated abroad could be significantly more dangerous than the original strain, a new report published in the British Medical Journal suggests. 

The U.K. strain, referred to as B.1.1.7, quickly surged to prominence among new COVID-19 infections within the U.K. and is now present in other countries, including the U.S.

To better understand the mortality rate of the U.K. variant, a team of scientists used genomic sequencing within 54,906 paired volunteers who tested positive for COVID-19 between early October 2020 and late January 2021 in a matched cohort study.

The purpose of the matched cohort study is to measure a response between an individual exposed to B.1.1.7 versus an individual who was exposed to an earlier strain.

Patients were followed up for 28 days to observe the virus infection outcome.

Results demonstrated that among the patients infected with B.1.1.7, 227 died within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test. In the opposing group, who had not been diagnosed with the U.K. variant, 141 died.

This yielded a higher hazard ratio, or an increased risk of death, for patients with the U.K. COVID-19 variant. Statistically, this has a fairly large margin of error, falling between a 32 percent increase and a 104 percent increase in risk.

Ultimately, the risk percentage averages out to about 64 percent.

“The variant of concern, in addition to being more transmissible, seems to be more lethal. We expect this to be associated with changes in its phenotypic properties because of multiple genetic mutations," the report concludes, “and we see no reason why this finding would be specific to the UK.”

Researchers further note that this increased risk of mortality may not be limited to the U.K. variant, saying other mutations from South Africa and Brazil underscore COVID-19’s potential to evolve faster than humans can account for.

The absolute risk of death still remains relatively low, even with the new COVID-19 strain. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 3,283 confirmed cases of B.1.1.7 in the U.S., across 49 jurisdictions. 

A silver lining may be emerging in that these new variants are circulating as COVID-19 vaccinations are becoming more widely accessible. 

The question of whether or not vaccines made to combat an older strain of the virus will still fight a mutation has yet to be definitively answered, with some pharmaceutical-commissioned reports that vaccines from Pfizer will work against new variants, while others say vaccines could be “far less” effective. 

Published on Mar 10, 2021