British Variant Not More Deadly, Admits PHE

Contrary to claims since January that the Kent coronavirus variant is “up to 100%” more deadly, a new study from Public Health England has confirmed – as a Lockdown Sceptics‘ analysis showed three weeks ago – that it is no more deadly than the original virus. The study continues to claim it increases the risk of hospitalisation by 30%, but this too seems unlikely to be more than a statistical artefact. As the Swiss Doctor notes, it is based on poor evidence, and “the influence of age, comorbidities and seasonal effects is much larger”.

Lockdown Sceptics noted on Saturday that while the British variant is becoming dominant in many countries, that dominance is often, as in the UK and Denmark, accompanied by infections, hospitalisations and deaths plummeting not surging. President Macron is locking down France again for a month (including closing schools), blaming the surge on the British variant. But is this correct? Here’s the graph plotting the progress of the Kent variant across the channel.

SARS-CoV-2 variant prevalence in France – Kent variant in red (from CoVariant)

Here’s what the positivity rate does at the same time.

Notice how it declines from the end of January to mid February, despite the British variant by that point being in the driving seat (some of the drop around Christmas may be due to a temporary change in testing practice). It then goes up again from late Feb, but the increase is steady – the sharp rise in raw case numbers in the past three weeks is driven mainly by an increase in testing.

This isn’t to say that the new variants do not bring new challenges. The Swiss Doctor observes that a number of the variants (though not the British one) have shown evidence of partial immune evasion, at least in terms of antibodies.

Nevertheless, some of the new coronavirus variants – most notably the ‘South African’ variant – are beginning to show partial immune evasion, as was to be expected. Some monoclonal antibodies already fail to neutralise some of the new variants, and most vaccines achieve lower neutralisation, too. Pharmaceutical companies will respond to this by creating new therapeutic antibody combinations and by updating their coronavirus vaccines (a multi-billion dollar business).

In fact, by March 2021, the novel coronavirus has managed to escape two out of three major antibody classes. If a new strain manages to escape all three major antibody classes, this “would be a worrying development, and should be monitored closely”. (Greaney et al.) This is one more reason why progress in early and prophylactic treatment is so very important.

To be sure, antibody immune evasion doesn’t necessarily mean complete immune evasion, as the immune system has additional means to fight off infections, including the famed T cells.

The Swiss Doctor’s latest is worth reading in full.

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