How worried should we be about the threat of the new strain of COVID-19?
Written by on 20 December 2020
When the prime minister announced his Tier 4 restrictions, he warned this new variant could increase the R value by more than 0.4.
That in itself is worrying. But now, newly-released minutes from the government’s own virus advisory group NERVTAG shows that threat could be significantly higher.
It has calculated the new variant might have driven the R value up by as much as 0.93.
There are lots of variables and we do not have access to all the data. And the R value is a range. It represents the average number of people each person with COVID goes on to infect.
But what is an absolute is that this new variant is making the pandemic spread faster.
We are told, too, that it is 70% more transmissible. This variant of the coronavirus has mutated, as all viruses do, to increase its own survival rate. The more people it can infect, the longer it will live.
This variant has a name: VUI-202012/01. And it is going to be a challenge trying to contain it.
The NERVTAG scientists warned: “It was noted that VUI-202012/01 has demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place.”
There is always a lag between infections and restriction measures, but clearly this variant was still growing and spreading very quickly even when restrictions were in place.
The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty have been quick to reassure us that this variant does not appear to be any more deadly or make its infected hosts any sicker.
That’s good. But the original virus already has the power to kill or make people very sick. Now this variant has shown it can spread that threat much faster.
That’s why the government has effectively cancelled Christmas for millions, and governments across Europe are rushing to impose travel restrictions to stop it infecting their citizens.
We know what follows a large spike in infections – hospitalisation. The numbers in London and the South East already show that.
And when you have large numbers of very sick patients being admitted to intensive care units, then it is a tragic inevitability that some of these patients will die.
PM: Residents in Tier 4 must stay home
But there is some good news.
There is no suggestion that this variant will be resistant to the new vaccines being rolled out.
Essentially, it is the same virus. If it does change any further, the vaccines can be altered to make them as affective.
This is exactly what happens every year with the influenza vaccine. Seasonal strains need an adapted vaccine.
But we have not reached that point yet. The current vaccines will work. We have to stop variant VUI-202012/01 spreading until everyone who needs the jab has had it.