Mar. 12, 2021 -- The B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the U.K., is between 30% to 100% more deadly than previous strains, likely around 64%, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday.
Governments should consider additional measures to reduce deaths from the variant and plan for hospital capacity, the study authors wrote.
“Death from COVID-19 is still a rare event, but the B.1.1.7 variant raises the risk. Coupled with its ability to spread rapidly, this makes B.1.1.7 a threat that should be taken seriously,” Robert Challen, the lead author and a researcher at the University of Exeter, said in a statement.
Epidemiologists from the University of Exeter and the University of Bristol compared the deaths rates among people infected with the variant and those infected with other strains. They found that the B.1.1.7 variant led to 227 deaths among nearly 55,000 patients, compared with 141 deaths among patients who had previous strains. The researchers matched the groups based on age, sex, ethnicity and location to eliminate as many variables as possible.
The difference represents an increase in deaths from 2.5 to 4.1 per 1,000 cases, they wrote. More people who would have been considered low-risk previously were hospitalized with the B.1.1.7 variant, they found.
“SARS-CoV-2 appears able to mutate quickly, and there is a real concern that other variants will arise with resistance to rapidly rolled out vaccines,” Leon Dannon, the senior author and a researcher at the University of Bristol, said in the statement.
“Monitoring for new variants as they arise, measuring their characteristics and acting appropriately needs to be a key part of the public health response in the future,” he said.
So far, the U.S. has reported nearly 3,300 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant across 49 states and territories, according to the latest CDC tally updated on Tuesday. The total includes the cases that have been identified through genomic sequencing and may not capture all of the cases in the U.S.
In addition, the U.S. has reported 91 cases of the B.1.351 variant, which was first identified in South Africa, across 21 states. The CDC has also reported 15 cases of the P.1 variant, which was first identified in Brazil, in 9 states.
On Wednesday, Moderna announced that it has administered the first doses of a modified vaccine that is designed to fight the B.1.351 variant. The modified version could become a booster shot to protect people against variants with particular mutations.
Moderna is tracking the efficacy of two different modified vaccines among 60 people who have already received the original vaccine. The National Institutes of Health will also test the modified vaccine with clinical trial participants who haven’t yet received the original vaccine, the company said.
In the U.K., the national lockdown seems to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus, the U.K. researchers wrote, but the B.1.1.7 variant has made it more difficult to control outbreaks. Deaths will scale up as new people become infected with the variant, they added, and doctors on the frontlines should be aware that more deaths will occur, even if they use the same safety protocols and treatments as before.
“This has broader implications for any vaccination allocation policy designed to reduce mortality,” the researchers wrote, adding that future studies “might allow for better targeting of resource allocation, vaccine distribution strategies, and relaxation of restrictions.”