People infected with the Kent coronavirus variant are more likely to get symptoms than those who have caught older strains but are less likely to lose their smell and taste, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Data from the ONS revealed today that 53 per cent of people in England who tested positive with the variant reported Covid-19 symptoms such as cough, fatigue and fever, compared to 48 per cent of people with other variants.
The ONS found that the largest differences in reported symptoms between the new variant and older stains were cough, sore throat, fatigue and muscle aches, which all became more common with the new variant.
But on the other hand the loss of taste and smell, considered to be one of the tell-tale signs of the virus, became less common.
The ONS report found that there was no significant difference in people experiencing shortness of breath, nausea vomiting or headaches between people who had tested positive with the mutation or novel strain.
Figures showed that 19 per cent of those who tested positive with the UK variant had a loss of smell and taste in comparison to other strains, among which it was 22 per cent.
The Government last week revealed that scientists think the Kent variant may be more deadlier than the previous dominant version of the virus, and it is already known to be more infectious by around 30 to 70 per cent.
The Kent strain now makes up around 60 per cent of all cases in England, according to separate ONS testing figures.
The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference last week: ‘In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant, the variant that was first identified in London and the South East, may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.’
The ONS report analysed the percentage of people with certain symptoms depending on which variant was detected in their positive test sample.
It found that ‘loss of taste and loss off smell were significantly less common in new variant compatible positives’.
But it added: ‘There is no evidence of difference in the gastrointestinal symptoms, shortness of breath or headaches.’
What do we know about the Kent variant?
Name: B.1.1.7, formerly VUI-202012/01
Where did it come from? The variant was first found in Kent and can be traced back to September 2020. Scientists noticed that it was spreading in November and it was revealed to the public in December.
What makes it new? The variant, which is a version of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19, has a series of mutations that change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The main one is known as N501Y. This appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread.
How did that happen? Viruses, particularly ones spreading so fast and in such huge numbers, mutate all the time. To reproduce they basically force living cells to copy and paste the viral genetic code, and this can contain errors that lead to slightly different versions of the virus. Often these mutations make no difference but, if they make the virus stronger, they can stick around for further generations and become the norm.
What can we do about it? Nothing much. People who catch the virus won’t know which type they have, and it will still cause the same symptoms and illness. Officials can try to contain it by locking down the areas where it is most prevalent, but if it is stronger than other versions of the virus it will eventually spread everywhere and become dominant as long as people continue to travel.
Will our vaccines still work? Yes, it’s very likely they will. Scientists on SAGE are fairly sure the mutations the Kent variant carries do not significantly affect how well the immune system can handle it. People who have a vaccine modelled on an older version of the virus, or who have been infected with Covid-19 before, are likely to be immune to it. This is because the main mutations are only on one part of the spike protein, whereas the immune system is able to target various other parts of the virus.
Figures showed that 35 per cent of people who tested positive with the new variant experienced a new, continuous cough, in comparison with 28 per cent of people who were infected with older strains.
Meanwhile, 21 per cent with the Kent variant suffered from a sore throat while only 19 per cent of people experienced this symptom if they tested positive with older strains.
Muscle aches known scientifically as myalgia, which can cause tenderness and swelling, were reported by a quarter of people with the new variant in comparison with 22 per cent of those with older strains of the virus.
The study also compared the percentage of people who had tested positive for the virus in non-patient facing jobs in comparison to patient-facing roles such as nurses, surgeons, and paramedics.
‘In recent weeks, there is evidence that the percentage testing positive has decreased in non-patient facing job roles but increased amongst those in patient-facing roles,’ the ONS report stated.
The ONS reported that in the week ending January 9, the percentage of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 increased in those aged under 35 and over 35 in patient-facing roles.
Figures showed that 3.6 per cent of people under the age of 35 in patient-facing roles tested positive for Covid-19 in the week ending January 9 compared with 3.4 per cent on January 1.
Similarly, the data also revealed that 3 per cent of people in patient-facing roles aged 35 and over tested positive for Covid-19 in the week ending January 9 compared with 2.7 per cent on January 1.
However the ONS found that 2.5 per cent of people under 35 in non-patient facing roles tested positive for Covid-19 in the week ending January 9 which was down from January 1 which reported 3 per cent.
The study revealed that the same pattern in those over 35 in non-patient facing roles which revealed 1.8 per cent tested positive in comparison to 2 per cent of people on January 1.
The study comes after scientists and politicians revealed last week that the Kent variant appears to be more deadly than the older versions of the virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the worrying announcement in a Downing Street press conference on Friday night, when he said: ‘We’ve been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant, the variant that was first identified in London and the South East, may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.’
And speaking about the announcement this week, SAGE scientists said it may be because the variant multiplies faster inside the lungs.
It had been known for weeks that the Kent variant was far more infectious than the original strain, thanks to a mutation on its spike protein which makes it easier for the virus to bind to human cells.
But Professor Peter Horby, a senior SAGE expert and an epidemiologist at Oxford University, said the mutations which make it more transmissible could also be behind its increased lethality.
He said: ‘If you’re getting much stronger binding… the virus is able to spread between cells quicker and that may increase rate of disease and rate of inflammation.’
But Professor Horby added that there was ‘no evidence’ the Kent strain is resistant to vaccines or even current Covid treatments.
Eight separate analyses comparing death rates between the two dominant Covid strains currently circulating through England concluded the Kent one was more deadly.
Professor John Edmunds, a chief scientist behind one of the studies, said although the finding was ‘concerning’, the proportion of infected people who die from the disease could still be lower this winter than in spring because medics have more approved medicines in their arsenal and doctors have got better at treating the virus.
The Kent variant was first picked up in the South East in late September and quickly went on to become the dominant strain in the UK, sparking a winter wave of infections and hospital admissions that plunged England into its third national lockdown.
Eight separate analyses comparing death rates between the two dominant Covid strains currently circulating through England concluded the Kent one was more deadly – but their estimates varied wildly. Two other studies suggested the Kent variant no more lethal, or even less lethal, than previous strains
UK studies have shown the variant is between 50 and 70 per cent more infectious than the original strain. A mutation on the variant’s spike protein — which protrudes from the coronavirus and hijacks human cells — is thought to make it better at infecting people.
This so-called N501Y mutation could also be what is making the variant more deadly than older versions, according to Professor Horby.
He told a press briefing on Monday: ‘The N501Y change increases its strength of binding to cells. If you’re getting much stronger binding you may need a much lower dose to get infected.
‘If it’s able to spread between cells quicker that may increase the rate of disease and the rate of inflammation.
‘But there is no evidence this virus [variant] would in any way behaves different to treatments currently being used. Those treatments are not related to the virus but instead related to the host response.’