News & Politics

New Strain of COVID-19, Fears of Increased Transmissibility Have U.K. Health Experts Asking Questions

AP Photo/Frank Augstein

On December 20, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an unprecedented Tier-4 lockdown due to a new strain of COVID-19. This will increase the rules for the Christmas holiday and completely shut down some areas of the country. Travel restrictions are in place inside the U.K., yet international travel has not been restricted from other areas.

The purported reason: This new strain of COVID-19, discovered in September, is 70% more contagious than the previous version of the virus. According to Sky News:

The action was prompted by the government’s fears over a new strain of coronavirus – known as VUI 2020/01 – which is believed to spread more quickly than the original strain and is judged to be the reason for rapidly rising infection rates in the South East.

Mr. Johnson said an analysis by the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) suggests the new strain could increase the R rate by “0.4 or greater” and might be “up to 70% more transmissible”.

“While we are fairly certain the variant is transmitted more quickly, there is no evidence to suggest that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” the prime minister said.

“Equally there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant.”

The fact that viruses mutate is not news. It is why a new vaccine for influenza comes out every year. It is also why its effectiveness is not extremely high. Sometimes the forecasted mutation is not the one that circulates. However, the prime minister’s pronouncements have some health experts scratching their heads.

Carl Heneghan, professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care, is skeptical. Following Johnson’s announcement, Heneghan made a call for the government to release the data it relied on to make such severe restrictions. He noted that the annual viral season has put a strain on the National Health Service. However, this is not a new phenomenon in the U.K.’s socialized system.

Surgeries are canceled in the NHS when there are not sufficient beds. According to The Guardian in September 2019:

A record 4.4 million people are waiting to go into hospital in England for a planned procedure, such as a hernia repair or cataract removal. But many trusts are finding it impossible to treat 92% of those patients within 18 weeks, as they are required to do by the NHS constitution, because of bed shortages and staffing problems, which the doctors’ pensions problem has exacerbated – senior doctors have been reducing their hours and turning down extra work, to avoid large tax bills on their pensions.

By November 2019, nearly 79,000 elective surgeries had been canceled due to staffing and bed shortages as well as inoperable equipment. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS had canceled 2.2 million surgeries as of the end of April. Health experts were already worried about the backlog, which included cancer surgeries and other lifesaving non-emergent treatments.

Despite the obvious capacity issues within the NHS, Heneghan is still skeptical. With 25 years of experience, he says this type of information could not have been quantified and verified. He asserts that the data is being made to fit the evidence.

He also states that if the government truly believes what they are saying, the entire country should be shut down. People were fleeing the affected regions before the Tier-4 restrictions went into effect. According to Heneghan, crowded train stations and increased automobile traffic will spread the new strain throughout the country.

In any case, he and his colleagues are calling for evidence that this new strain is truly more transmissible, especially since the government agency is only moderately confident in the assertion regarding transmissibility:

I would want to have very clear evidence rather than “we think it’s more transmissible'”so we can see if it is or not. It has massive implications, it’s causing fear and panic, but we should not be in this situation when the Government is putting out data that is unquantifiable.

Johnson did note in his press conference that this was very early data and subject to review. This could be a move to preserve hospital capacity given the system’s weaknesses during the early pandemic and in 2019. However, meeting minutes noted that the virus’s spread, including the new variant, was still exponential during the Tier-3 lockdown.