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The new UK coronavirus variant does not cause more severe illness, a major study suggests

Business Insider US
TRURO, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09: A staff nurse at the
A staff nurse at the Royal Cornwall Hospital prepares to administer Covid-19 vaccinations as the hospital began their vaccination programme on 9 December in Truro, United Kingdom. (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)
  • Researchers studying the new B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, believed to be more contagious, found it does not cause more severe disease.
  • The Public Health England study compared 1,769 people infected with the variant against 1,769 people with the "wild-type" virus. They found no significant differences in hospitalisation or death rate.
  • The variant, first identified in the UK in September, has been found in at least 18 other countries.
  • It has similarities to a new variant first discovered in South Africa, which may also be more easily spread. 
  • Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.

The new, possibly more contagious coronavirus variant that has been spreading in Europe does not cause more severe illness or have a higher death rate, a major study has suggested.

Researchers from Public Health England (PHE), a government public health agency, compared 1,769 people infected with the B.1.1.7 variant against 1,769 people with the original, "wild-type" virus. They found no significant differences in hospitalisation or death rate.

Susan Hopkins, senior medical adviser to PHE, said the research suggested the new variant "does not cause more severe disease or increased mortality," but that researchers were continuing their investigations.

The new variant was first identified in the UK in September, and was responsible for a wave of new infections in December, prompting other nations to ban travel from the UK. It appears to be more infectious than the original variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease Covid-19. This theory was supported by the new PHE research.

The variant has since been identified in at least 18 other countries, including Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, and Japan.

This PHE trial was the first "matched" study of the new variant, meaning it compared two groups of subjects matched for age, sex, location, and time of testing, per the Financial Times.

In total, 42 people with either the wild type or B.1.1.7 variant were admitted to hospital after infection - 26 people with the wild type, and 16 with the variant. Twelve people with the variant had died, along with 10 with the wild type. The differences were not statistically significant, the researchers said.

Reinfection was not more likely in the variant group, the researchers said; only two people had been reinfected within 90 days of their first infection, compared to three in the wild-type group. 

The researchers found that 15% of people in contact with somebody that had the B.1.1.7 variant had caught it, compared to 10% of people in contact with the wild type. This supported the theory that the new variant is more contagious, they said. 

The English variant has similarities to a worrying new variant first detected in South Africa, which may also spread more easily than previous versions of the virus.

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