Deaths linked to the B.1.1.7 variant are rising, but questions remain about what is causing them.
The news is sobering, but complicated. Scientists have released the data behind a British government warning last week that the fast-spreading SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 increases the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared with previous variants. But some scientists caution that the latest study — like the government warning — is preliminary and still does not indicate whether the variant is more deadly or is just spreading faster and so reaching greater numbers of vulnerable people.
The latest findings are concerning, but to draw conclusions, “more work needs to be done”, says Muge Cevik, a public-health researcher at the University of St Andrews, who is based in Edinburgh, UK.
Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said preliminary data from several research groups suggested that B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, was spreading more quickly than previous variants and was also associated with a higher risk of death. On 3 February, researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) released an analysis1 of some of those data, which suggests that the risk of dying is around 35% higher for people who are confirmed to be infected with the new variant.
In real terms, that means that for men aged 70–84, the number who are likely to die from COVID-19 increases from roughly 5% for those who test positive for the older variant, to more than 6% for those confirmed to be infected with B.1.1.7, according to the analysis. For men aged 85 or over, the risk of dying increases from about 17% to nearly 22% for those confirmed to be infected with the new variant. The analysis has not been peer reviewed.
Other groups are also studying whether B.1.1.7 and other new SARS-CoV-2 variants are more deadly than earlier versions of the virus….[ ]