U.K. COVID Variant Found in 47 States Is More Deadly, Study Finds

The U.K. variant of COVID-19 that has been detected in 47 U.S. states is associated with significantly higher mortality, a study has found.

The report, published in the journal BMJ, adds to previous evidence suggesting that the highly transmissible variant— known as B.1.1.7 or VOC-202012/01—may be more deadly.

The authors of the study found that individuals infected with the variant—identified at U.K. community test centers—were between 32 and 104 percent (central estimate: 64 percent) more likely to die than equivalent individuals infected with previously circulating variants.

In the largely unvaccinated population observed in the study, the risk of death from the variant remained low. Researchers said deaths increased from 2.5 to 4.1 per 1,000 detected cases.

"But clinicians and public health officials should be aware that a higher mortality rate is likely even if practice remains unchanged," the authors wrote.

"The probability that the risk of mortality is increased by infection with VOC-202012/01 is high. If this finding is generalizable to other populations, infection with VOC-202012/1 has the potential to cause substantial additional mortality compared with previously circulating variants."

"Health care capacity planning and national and international control policies are all impacted by this finding, with increased mortality lending weight to the argument that further coordinated and stringent measures are justified to reduce deaths from SARS-CoV-2."

The variant was first detected in southeast England in fall 2020 and is thought to be 40 to 70 percent more transmissible than previously circulating variants. It is spreading fast in the U.S., with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicting in January that it would become dominant in the country by this month.

So far, more than 3,000 cases have been detected across the U.S., but this likely represents a fraction of the actual figure because it only accounts for the small number of cases that have been identified through genomic sequencing.

"Four weeks ago, the B.1.1.7 variant made up about 1 percent to 4 percent of the virus that we were seeing in communities across the country. Today it's up to 30 percent to 40 percent," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the research, told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.

According to the authors of the BMJ study, the emergence of this variant coincided with high hospital occupancy, which is known to increase mortality. But before this report, unbiased estimates of the mortality of the variant were not available, they said.

"It is now well established that the Kent variant is more transmissible; it has come to dominate in the U.K. and it is increasing in prevalence in other parts of the developed world," Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading in the U.K., said in a statement about the BMJ study, which he was not involved in.

"This increased lethality, in addition to the increased transmissibility, means that this version of the virus presents a substantial challenge to health care systems and policy makers. It also makes it even more important people get vaccinated when called."

Other experts urged caution in interpreting the findings of the study, however, saying more research must be conducted before B.1.1.7's apparently higher lethality can be confirmed.

"I'm still not yet very convinced by these results," Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., said in a statement. "Clinical teams know that the coldest winter temperatures occurring in January/February can exacerbate all the co-morbidities that predispose to more severe outcomes of COVID-19—like chronic heart, lung, renal, neurological diseases, including diabetes [and] hypertension.

"So without the careful matching of co-morbidities in the [variant of concern] and non-VOC arms, these differential clinical severity model outcomes are still questionable. We really need to revisit this in spring to account for the cold weather factor. There are also other seasonal variables related to shorter daylight hours, such as melatonin levels, that may impact differentially on VOC vs. non-VOC clinical outcomes."

Newsweek, in partnership with NewsGuard, is dedicated to providing accurate and verifiable vaccine and health information. With NewsGuard's HealthGuard browser extension, users can verify if a website is a trustworthy source of health information. Visit the Newsweek VaxFacts website to learn more and to download the HealthGuard browser extension.

New York city daily life during pandemic
People wearing face masks sit by the fountain at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City on March 9. Noam Galai/Getty Images