London (dpa) – A mutation of the coronavirus, a rapid spread – and now also a higher mortality rate? What sounds like every virologist’s nightmare could now come true in England.
In any case, statements by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggest that the variant of the coronavirus discovered in Great Britain may be more deadly than the previously common variant. The excitement is great. Because this news was always feared, since Johnson had also reported shortly before Christmas of the rapid spread of this mutation, now called B.1.1.7.
“We were told today that, in addition to the faster spread, there is some evidence that the new variant (…) may be associated with higher mortality,” Johnson told journalists Friday. The embassy also sent shockwaves to Germany. “No one has been waiting for that … I’m tired of it tonight,” tweeted SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach.
But today Johnson faced criticism from British scientists. “I was genuinely surprised that the news was given at a press conference,” Mike Tildesley, a member of the Sage Scientific Panel, told the BBC. “I’m afraid we’ll report things too soon if the data isn’t really meaningful yet.”
The mutation B.1.1.7 had appeared in the southeastern county of Kent late last year and had spread rapidly in London and parts of the country. The authorities blame the variant for a sharp increase in new infections around the turn of the year. Tens of thousands of new corona cases and more than 1,000 deaths are reported daily, and hospitals and nursing staff are working on the attack.
In viruses, random changes in the genetic material called mutations occur constantly. Some give the pathogen benefits – for example, by making it easier to transmit. According to British experts, the variant that appeared in Great Britain is 30 to 70 percent easier to transfer than the previous one.
There is no doubt that scientists have shown an increase in mortality from B.1.1.7. If 10 out of 1,000 men in their 60s die with the previous form, the figure for the variant is around 13 or 14. But the question is: how valid and how meaningful are the data? Is the information so far known enough to give such explosive news to the public at this point?
And this is precisely where experts are skeptical. “I’d like to wait a week or two and do some analysis before we come to really strong conclusions,” Tildesley said. So far, the amount of data used is quite small. Public Health England Medical Director Yvonne Doyle made a similar statement. It was “not entirely clear” that the mutant was more deadly, Doyle told BBC Radio 4. “It is too early to say that.” At the same press conference, Johnson’s top scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said it was still very uncertain whether and how much more deadly the new variant is.
Other scientists defended Johnson. “We have to be transparent,” said Peter Horby, head of a government scientific advisory group, the BBC. “If we didn’t tell people, we would be accused of hiding it.” It is important to classify the news. “This is a risk for a certain age group and that risk has increased,” Horby said. “But it’s still not a dangerous disease for most people.” It is especially crucial that the vaccines used so far also prove to be effective against B.1.1.7. To date, more than five million people have been vaccinated in the UK.
But it’s not the first time Johnson has been confusing with an uncoordinated advance in the corona pandemic. Shortly before Christmas, he said the mutation would transfer up to 70 percent faster. Johnson thus justified a new national lockdown with far-reaching exit and travel restrictions. But it also led to hasty border closures and flight bans in EU countries. Thousands of trucks were trapped in southern England for days as France halted ferry traffic and the Eurotunnel.
The populist Johnson has often been accused of losing his sense of the right moment in the Corona crisis. The prime minister has repeatedly torn deadlines he has set himself when the country is out of the woods. The current state of Johnson and his colleagues is: at Easter. For example, Health Minister Matt Hancock never misses an opportunity to announce that he has already rented a cottage in Cornwall for the summer break.