'Some evidence' UK coronavirus strain more deadly: Johnson

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus.
Toby Melville - WPA Pool / Getty Images

The new strain of coronavirus identified in Britain could be not only more transmissible but also more deadly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday.

"It also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant... may be associated with a higher degree of mortality," he said at a Downing Street news conference.

Chief government scientist Patrick Vallance said the new variant could be around 30 percent more deadly, although he stressed that only sparse data was available.

He said that for a 60-year-old man, around 10 in 1 000 would be expected to die after catching the original strain.

But that rises to "13 or 14" for the new strain.

"You will see that across the different age groups as well, a similar sort of relative increase in the risk," he added.

Johnson said the government could not consider easing lockdown restrictions with infection rates at their current high levels, and until it is confident that the vaccination programme is working.

"You can't unlock whilst rates of infection are so very high," he said.

"We really can't begin to consider unlocking until we're confident that the vaccination programme is working."

Britain is in the grip of its third and worst wave of the virus, recording record daily death tolls that have pushed the total figure close to 100 000.

Another 1 401 people were announced on Friday to have died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the total to 95 981.

More than 38 500 people were in hospital with Covid-19 which is 78 percent more than during the first peak last year.

The warning about the higher risk of death from the new variant, which was identified in England late last year, came as a fresh blow after the country had earlier been buoyed by news the number of new COVID-19 infections was estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4% a day.

Johnson said however that all the current evidence showed both vaccines remained effective against old and new variants.

Data published earlier on Friday showed that 5.38 million people had been given their first dose of a vaccine, with 409,855 receiving it in the past 24 hours, a record high so far.

The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5%, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.

The closely watched reproduction "R" number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.

But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.

"Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control," the health ministry said. "It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not."

On average, one in 55 people have got the virus in England, rising to one in 35 in London, said chief medical officer Chris Whitty.

Although cases appear to have levelled off, hospitals are in danger of becoming overwhelmed and the government is in a race to vaccinate as many vulnerable people as possible.

Johnson said some 5.3 million people had received their first jab, and the government was on track to achieve its target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable by mid-February.

Vallance said there was "increasing evidence" that the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Pfizer vaccines being used in Britain were both effective against the new strain.

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