New virus variant may be somewhat deadlier, UK warns

  • >> Elian Peltier, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-01-23 10:23:00 BdST

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks during a coronavirus news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, Britain January 22, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via Reuters

For weeks, Britain has reported alarming coronavirus death numbers, hospitals have continued to fill up, and fears have risen that it will take months to control the spread of a more transmissible variant first detected in the Kent region of England last year.

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a news conference the new variant may also be associated with a slightly higher chance of death, even as he acknowledged it was too soon to be sure, and his own scientific advisers urged restraint in interpreting preliminary evidence.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said that the data indicating an increase in the risk of death in those infected with the new variant are preliminary and based on small numbers. The absolute risk of dying from COVID-19 still remains low.

“That evidence is not yet strong; it’s a series of different bits of information that come together to support that,” Vallance said.

Referring to the country’s overstretched National Health Service, Johnson said that “it’s largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure.”

Yet as Britain’s top health authorities have warned about grim weeks ahead, the latest vaccination figures have offered a glimmer of hope: Nearly 5.5 million people had received a first vaccine dose in Britain as of Friday, according to government data. That amounts to about 8% of the population.

By comparison, the United States has vaccinated around 4.5% of its population, and most European countries have vaccinated less than 2%.

Fewer than 500,000 people in Britain have received a second injection, as the NHS is prioritizing first injections and second doses are being given up to 12 weeks after the first. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Astra Zeneca vaccines gave a “great majority of the protection.”

Since authorities imposed new lockdown restrictions in England this month, Britain has reported its highest daily death figures. The country remains one of the worst-hit in Europe, and authorities have said that England’s lockdown could remain in place throughout the spring.

“We will have to live with the coronavirus, one way or another, for a long time to come,” Johnson said Friday.

The situation is so bleak that, according to British news reports, authorities are considering offering 500 pounds (about $680) to anyone testing positive for the virus to help them stay in quarantine for the full 10 days, which many currently do not.

There are also fears that cuts in vaccine deliveries from Pfizer, which is retooling a major manufacturing plant in Belgium, may slow down the vaccination campaign, and that variations in vaccination rates are putting some areas of the country at a disadvantage.

In Britain, a racecourse, rugby fields and religious buildings have been turned into vaccination centres, and shots are also being given at 1,200 hospitals and medical offices. More than 2 million people were vaccinated in the past seven days, twice as many as two weeks ago.

At that rate, Britain could still fall short of its goal to vaccinate 13.9 million people by mid-February, but authorities have said they can reach the target if they continue to increase the pace.

Johnson struck a careful tone about the vaccine rollout Friday, offering a reminder that a successful vaccine rollout alone couldn’t defeat the virus. “It depends on everybody doing the right thing and avoiding transmission,” Johnson said.

The encouraging vaccination figures have come in stark contrast to sluggish rollouts elsewhere in Europe. Several leaders expressed frustration Thursday, and members of the European Union have urged the bloc’s authorities to accelerate vaccine deliveries.

Government officials in Romania and Poland said that Pfizer had halved the amount of vaccine doses being delivered to their countries, and Italian officials have threatened legal action against the US vaccine maker.

“Leaders want vaccination to be accelerated,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council, the group of EU leaders.

In Britain, Whitty said more vaccine and antiviral drugs would be rolled out later this year. “I don’t think this virus is going anywhere,” Whitty said. “It’s going to be around probably forever, but it will be controlled.”

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