UK Covid-19 variant has significantly higher death rate, study finds

Italian region stricken by last year’s Covid outbreak faces surging cases

Health workers administer doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 inside a convention centre in Rome. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo

Health workers administer doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 inside a convention centre in Rome. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo

 

A highly infectious variant of Covid-19 that has spread around the world since it was first discovered in Britain late last year is between 30 per cent and 100 per cent more deadly than previous strains, researchers said on Wednesday.

In a study that compared death rates among people in Britain infected with the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, known as B117, against those infected with other strains, scientists said the new variant had “significantly higher” mortality.

The B117 variant was first detected in Britain in September 2020, and has since been found in more than 100 countries.

It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and some of these have made it far more able to spread. UK scientists say it is about 40 per cent–70 per cent more transmissible than previously dominant circulating coronavirus variants.

In the UK study, published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday, infection with the new variant led to 227 deaths in a sample of 54,906 Covid-19 patients, compared with 141 among the same number of patients infected with other variants.

“Coupled with its ability to spread rapidly, this makes B117 a threat that should be taken seriously,” said Robert Challen, a researcher at Exeter University who co-led the research.

Italy

The 160-bed hospital in the Po River Valley town of Chiari has no more room for patients stricken with the highly contagious variant of Covid-19 first identified in Britain that has put hospitals in Italy’s northern Brescia province on high alert.

That history was repeating itself one year after Lombardy became the epicentre of Italy’s pandemic was a sickening realisation for Dr Gabriele Zanolini, who runs the Covid ward in the M Mellini Hospital in the once-walled city that maintains its medieval circular street pattern.

“You know that there are patients in the emergency room, and you don’t know where to put them,” Dr Zanolini said.

“This for me is anguish, not to be able to respond to people who need to be treated.

“The most difficult moment is to find ourselves again in a state of emergency, after so much time.”

The UK variant surge has filled 90 per cent of hospital beds in Brescia province, bordering both Veneto and Emilia-Romagna regions, as Italy crossed the grim threshold of 100,000 pandemic dead on Monday and marks the one-year anniversary Wednesday of Italy’s draconian lockdown, the first in the West.

While Dr Zanolini was able to offer a safety valve to hard-hit Bergamo during last spring’s deadly surge, and to Milan and Varese in the autumn, now he must ask hospitals elsewhere in the region to take virus patients he himself cannot admit.

New measures are again being considered in Rome to tamp down the increase in new cases attributed to virus variants, including also those identified in South Africa and Brazil.

With the UK variant prevalent in Italy and racing from school age children and adolescents through families, Lombardy has again put all schools on distance learning, as have several regions in the south where the health care system is more fragile.

In this surge, patients in the Chiari hospital Covid ward are increasingly family members, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, Dr Zanolini said.

And unlike previous spikes, the average age has dropped, with many of the virus patients needing breathing aid between 45 and 55 years of age.

“We have seen, however, that they respond well to treatment,” Dr Zanolini said of the younger patients, noting that mortality remains high among the elderly.

Despite months of renewed restrictions starting in October, Italy’s death toll remains stubbornly high – several hundred a day.

It topped 100,000 this week, the second-highest in Europe after Britain.

Pakistan

Pakistan has started vaccinating people who are 60-years-old or above to protect them amid a steady increase in cases and fatalities from the disease.

Pakistan is currently using China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which was donated to it by Beijing last month.

Pakistan hopes to start receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine this month under the World Health Organisation’s Covax Facility.

Authorities say Pakistan will receive 17 million doses of coronavirus vaccines under the scheme from March to June.

Fatalities and confirmed cases from the coronavirus have increased steadily since March 1, when Pakistan resumed regular classes at schools.

On Wednesday, Pakistani authorities were expected to decide whether schools should again be closed.

Pakistan has reported 595,239 cases, including 13,324 deaths. – Agencies