BARCELONA — It was a bad end to a bad COVID week in Europe. On Friday evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that researchers had found “some evidence” that the recently discovered U.K. variant of the coronavirus, which was already known to be more contagious than the original strain and has prompted an alarming surge of cases and a lockdown in that country, “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.” A 30 percent higher mortality, added his government lead scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, in revealing the assessment by that country’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. He added there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about exactly how lethal the variant is.
Responding to the news, Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel explained that “10 different studies with models show that the [U.K.] variant has a higher risk of death compared to the non-U.K. variants,” but underscored that “these are studies and models, not necessarily clinical trials.” She added that if the U.K. strain is in fact more deadly, it becomes “more urgent to get vaccines out as soon as possible” and that epidemiologists need to more clearly “understand the spread of the variant here in the U.S.”
The variant, which is believed to be as much as 70 percent more transmissible than the predominant strain in the U.S., has been identified in at least 20 states among Americans with no recent history of foreign travel, indicating it is spreading rapidly. The CDC says it could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.
The U.K. report hit Spain particularly hard, as new cases there have been spiking since the holiday season ended, with Friday’s announcement of 44,357 new cases breaking all previous daily records. Only the U.S. and Brazil are reporting higher numbers of new cases. At least 5 percent of the cases in this Spanish “third wave” are believed to be the U.K. variant, which the Spanish government’s chief scientific COVID adviser, Fernando Simón, believes will be the dominant strain in Spain within a few weeks.
The dramatic spike was initially believed to be a reflection of the extended holiday season in Spain, which stretches from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, during which some restrictions, such as curfews and travel between regions, were eased. However, with hospitalizations hitting new highs, epidemiologists realized that the U.K. variant, which first showed up in Spain a month ago, was evident in increasing numbers, and appears to be fueling the rising cases, particularly in the country’s south.
Thus far, the Spanish national government — which has mandated mask wearing in all public places, including on the streets, curtailed hours of restaurant operations and imposed a nationwide 10 p.m. curfew in October — is denying requests from Spain’s regions to set the curfew to 8 p.m. or to impose a full lockdown.
In fact, in the land where tourism is an economic driver, Spanish authorities have recently announced they hope Spain’s tourism will be back on track by late summer, by which time the prime minister believes at least 70 percent of Spaniards will have been vaccinated, a process that started last month.
Patel stressed that “despite this sobering news, we still believe vaccines can work against these variants and be incredibly important, especially for those at high risk for dying from COVID.” But as vaccines may need to be tweaked to address the British and other new variants, Americans “need to triple down on our public health efforts” such as donning masks and social distancing.
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