The Kent Covid variant, which is now the UK’s dominant version of coronavirus, is no more deadly than the original strain, research by Public Health England (PHE) has found.
A PHE study matched 2,800 cases of the B117 variant first identified in Kent against the original Covid strain and found there was no significant difference in the risk of mortality.
It comes despite the Prime Minister warning in January that the new strain, which caused a huge spike in cases over winter, could be 30 per cent more deadly than the original variant.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested that the rate of dying for those infected by the original virus was 2.5 per 1,000 people, but rose to 4.1 in 1,000 for the Kent variant.
The new research by PHE, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, is the first to individually link hospitalisation records nationally to variant cases in England.
It found the risk of hospitalisation associated with the Kent strain was around 34 per cent higher than the original strain. However, scientists noted that the figure had been found through larger analysis, which would have greater power to detect smaller differences.
The Kent variant was first identified in September last year and announced to the public in December.
The government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (Nervtag) committee presented evidence to Boris Johnson in the week before Christmas suggesting the variant was 70 per cent more transmissible. The findings let to the PM’s decision on 19 December to rip up plans for social mixing throughout the Christmas period.
The variant is thought to have caused coronavirus cases to skyrocket over the festive season, with a record 81,572 daily cases reported on 29 December. Johnson warned in January that the new strain was applying “intense pressure” on the NHS.
Scientists had previously expressed concerns that the Kent variant may prove partially resistant to available vaccines.
However, subsequent studies have suggested that the Astrazeneca, Pfizer/Biontech, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson jabs all offer protection against the B117 strain.
Data released by the University of Oxford last month said the Astrazeneca vaccine has a similar efficacy against the new Covid variant compared to the original coronavirus strain it was tested against.
Professor Andrew Pollard, a chief investigator on the vaccine trial, said the new research suggested “the vaccine not only protects against the original pandemic virus, but also protects against the novel B117 variant”.
However, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant has joined a list of firms developing the “next generation” of Covid vaccines especially suited to tackle emerging coronavirus variants.
Mene Pangalos, a senior research chief at Astrazeneca said the company will start developing a new vaccine for mutated strains such as the South African and Brazil variants and will look to make them public “as rapidly as possible”.
Studies released in January showed those strains, which have mutated to contain the new E484K spike, are potentially more resistant to vaccines currently available, although the jabs are still thought to provide good protection against illness and severe disease.
Johnson has said his roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions hinges on keeping the threat from emerging Covid variants at bay.
More than 30.6m people have now received a first dose of the vaccine, while more than 3.8m have received their second jab.
The government has said it is “on track” to meet its target to offer a first injection to all over-50s by 15 April, and to all adults in the UK by 31 July.