Variant virus gains bigger foothold in UK as cases surge

UK alert
UK alert

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Developments with variant SARS-CoV-2 continued to dominate global COVID-19 news today, with the United Kingdom reporting more record-high case numbers and new reports revealing more about the prevalence and risk.

Meanwhile, a new risk assessment from European health officials said the UK variant may have emerged in September and is expected to push hospitalizations and deaths higher, and more countries reported the detection of the South African variant virus.

UK cases hit new daily high, variant detected in increasing proportions

Public Health England (PHE) today on Twitter reported 53,135 new cases, marking a new single-day high for the country. Susan Hopkins, MD, senior medical advisor for PHE, said, though cases reported today reflect some holiday backlog, they largely reflect a real increase. "We are continuing to see unprecedented levels of COVID-19 infection across the UK, which is of extreme concern, particularly as our hospitals are at their most vulnerable," she said.

A risk assessment today from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said more than 3,000 cases involving the UK variant have been reported so far, and though it makes up an increasing proportion of cases in London, the South East, and the East, cases have also been reported in other parts of the UK.

The latest update on the variant from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 6 in 10 cases in London are due to the UK variant.

In the ECDC's risk assessment, officials also discussed the similar but separate South African variant, which has been detected twice in two different parts of the UK in contacts of symptomatic people who returned from visiting South Africa. Finland has also reported a similar case. In South Africa, that variant was first observed in October, has been confirmed in more than 300 cases, and is now the country's dominant strain. According to the latest media reports, the South African variant has also been detected in Australia and Japan.

Risk of further spread of the variants is high, and though they don't appear to cause more severe infection, their higher transmissibility could boost hospitalizations and deaths and put more pressure on healthcare systems, the ECDC said.

Studies yield more clues about UK variant, vaccination impact

In related developments, PHE yesterday published its second technical report on the virus variant, which details a case-control study noted by World Health Organization (WHO) officials yesterday, which reveals that the UK variant doesn't show any differences in hospitalizations, case-fatality rates over 28 days, or reinfection.

The technical report said health officials are using the S-gene dropout in some polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing systems as a more timely proxy for tracking the variant virus and that the proportion continued to rise in December in all age groups, but especially in adults ages 25 to 49 years old.

Today, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that the UK must vaccinate 2 million people each week to avoid a third surge of COVID-19. In a report posted on the Center for Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Diseases preprint server, the group said the only way to keep the intensive care unit (ICU) burden below that of the first surge is to combine tier 4 control measures with keeping schools closed in January and achieving 2 million-a-week vaccination. Exceeding that vaccine uptake level would have an even bigger impact, the authors said.

Small global decline could reflect holiday reporting effects

The World Health Organization (WHO) said in its weekly situation report that 4 million cases of COVID-19 were reported last week, with a 12% decline that should be interpreted with caution due to the end-of-year holiday season. The Americas region accounted for the highest percentages of new cases, and though cases in the European region are still high, illnesses and deaths declined compared with the previous week. Other regions saw increases, including Africa and the Western Pacific.

In other developments:

  • The Netherlands is reporting its highest level of excess deaths since World War II, due to pandemic impacts, the New York Times reported, based on data from the country's statistics bureau.
  • A seroprevalence study from the China Center for Disease Control suggests that the number of Wuhan residents infected with the virus is 10 times higher than confirmed cases, according to CNN. The study was done after the first wave was contained and also assessed seroprevalence in some of the country's other major cities. It found that the 4.43% seroprevalence rate in Wuhan suggests that as many as 500,000 infections, compared with the 50,354 officially reported.
  • The global COVID-19 total has climbed to 81,746,514 cases, with 1,784,105 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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