We recently heard from the Prime Minister that the new variant of coronavirus that is now common in the UK – B.1.1.7, to give its scientific name – might be 30% more deadly than other variants. This sounds very scary, but what does it mean for our risk as individuals?
One important thing to note is that these findings are preliminary. Although analyses by various groups of academics have come up with similar estimates of the increased risk of dying with the new variant, all of the estimates are based on early data – after all, the new variant has only been widespread for a few months – and all estimates have some uncertainty around them. As more data becomes available and further analyses are done we will have a more precise understanding of the way the new variant impacts upon chances of dying.
On a population level, the current estimates suggest that the new UK variant will kill 30% more of the people it infects than previous variants. Where the previous variants may have led to 100 deaths, a similar number of infections with the new variant will likely lead to 130 deaths. This is obviously very concerning, and needs to be taken into account by those who are deciding what coronavirus control measures should be in place.
Risk for individuals
When assessing risks for ourselves and our loved ones, we want to think about risk for individuals rather than populations. Most studies have suggested that coronavirus kills about 1 in every 100 people who catch it. The estimates relating to the higher risk from the new UK variant suggest that it would kill 1 in every 77 people who catch it. However, the risk of dying if you catch coronavirus varies in relation to our personal characteristics, including sex, having certain medical conditions, and most substantially by age.
So, the risk of somebody in their 80s dying from previous variants might have been 1 in 50 – as estimated in research led by scientists at Cambridge University – or 1 in 20 – as estimated by scientists at Imperial College London. Rough estimates would suggest that with the new UK variant these risks might be 1 in 38 or 1 in 15. For someone in their late 60s the same two groups of scientists estimated risk of dying to have been 1 in 100 or 1 in 70 with previous variants, so with the new UK variant the risk might be 1 in 77 or 1 in 50.
The same rules still apply
As well as the news that the new UK variant may be more deadly, we are now quite confident that it is also easier to catch than previous variants. Overall, this makes for a more worrying picture. The key things we need to do to avoid infection remain the same, though: minimise close contact with others, keep social contacts outdoors if possible, and open windows, socially distance and wear a mask when this isn’t possible. And now, for those of us in the priority groups, take up the opportunity to be vaccinated against coronavirus as soon as the NHS offers it.
All the evidence suggests that the vaccines we have will be just as effective with the new UK variant as with previous variants.
More articles by Dr Webb
Dr Elizabeth Webb is Head of Research at Age UK. She has an MSc in Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD in Social Epidemiology from University College London.