What do we know about the fast-spreading Covid variant in UK?

A fast-spreading variant of Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – compelled Boris Johnson to scale back his government’s “Christmas bubble” plans for England, including a “stay at home” order covering London and much of the south and east of England.

Natalie Grover www.theguardian.com

These additional restrictions on millions of people may have to remain in place for several months until vaccines have been rolled out across the UK. But what can scientists tell us so far about this variant, and should we be worried?

What do we know about this new variant?

All viruses, and indeed coronaviruses, mutate all the time, so it is not unexpected that this new variant has emerged.

Dr Muge Cevik, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said that more than 4,000 Sars-Cov-2 mutations had been observed so far, of which maybe a handful appeared to be of any significance.

The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, said the new variant discovered in the south-east could be up to 70% more transmissible and could increase the R value by 0.4 or more. Given the data so far, it does not appear to raise the risk of severe illness or the mortality rate.

In a Nervtag summary released on Sunday, experts wrote that they had “moderate confidence” that the variant demonstrated a substantial increase in transmissibility compared with other variants.

They cautioned, however, that the data was preliminary and based on modelling. Cevik said: “Although the results depend on the quality and quantity of data you feed it, this appears to be an important variant based on genetic data – it is potentially its more transmissible but we don’t know how much and we don’t have absolute certainty … Right now, we can’t make a causal relationship, it’s only an association effect.”

The data accumulated so far is consistent with the understanding that the variant is more infectious, or able to spread more efficiently, but we do not have laboratory-based confirmation of that or any idea of why it is spreading faster, said Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King’s College London.

The variant was associated with 10% to 15% of cases in certain areas a few weeks ago, but last week it jumped to roughly 60% of cases in London, he said,

What do we not know?

Of most concern to scientists at the moment are changes in the variant’s spike protein – the part of the virus that allows it to infiltrate cells in the lungs, throat and nasal cavity by interacting with a receptor called ACE-2, said Neil.

The mutation on the spike protein may enhance the virus’s ability to interact with ACE-2, giving it a growth advantage, he said. On the other hand, the spike protein is the bit of the virus that the vaccines are designed to develop antibodies against, so this mutation could impede the vaccine from doing its job. “It’s something that really does need to be monitored,” he said.

Another big concern is that it is still unclear how many factors had been driving up the transmission in recent weeks, Cevik said. It is likely the variant has influenced transmissibility, but high rates of transmission have also been observed in of areas under higher restrictions.

“Sometimes it comes back to the uncomfortable fact about social inequalities. Lockdowns have limited effects on people who can’t work from home,” she said.

Should restrictions be tightened if there are so many unknowns?

It is always difficult to make decisions based on limited data, but given what we know about this variant so far, experts say it is important to err on the side of caution.

“We may see trends, but they may not pan out later on. In this current situation I think … it’s probably too early to tell. Bu,it was a bit difficult not to act on it, especially since there was a plan for families to come together over Christmas,” Cevik said.

Prof Andrew Hayward, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “London and the south-east are very far ahead, but it only took them one or two weeks to really move from relatively low levels to very high levels and so it feels to me as though it’s going to be inevitable that tougher restrictions will be needed across the country.

“As usual, as always really, it’s better to go in harder earlier if you want to avoid the maximum number of deaths.”

He said the tighter restrictions were an effort to reduce transmission until as many vulnerable people as possible could be protected.

“That would buy us many more weeks in which we could get people vaccinated, and would save … in my view, tens of thousands of lives.”

Is social distancing guidance sufficient if the variant is more transmissible?

We do not understand enough about the variant to know its impact on existing guidance in terms of social distancing and mask wearing, experts says.

Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds and a member of Sage, said: “I think a lot of people are quite relaxed now around distancing, and we do have to remember the risk goes up the closer you get to somebody.

“We need to be taking as many steps as we can to reduce our potential exposure to it … where interactions are necessary, that we’re really rigorous in applying the measures that we’ve got.”

Should schools reopen in January given what we know about the variant?

It is a great advantage that schools are not open at this time, said Hayward. “I think one of the questions to me is whether it’s really sensible to be going back early in January even with a staggered start for planning to get all students back to school.

Neil said: “The scientist in me says the most effective way to block virus transmission is to limit any contact between anyone that could pass the virus on. But there’s the other half of me, the parent, who sees just how potentially damaging the effect on limiting children’s development and education through closing the schools can have.

“My feeling is that the last thing you should possibly consider is closing the schools. I would, however, advocate a far more aggressive prospective testing of staff in schools.”

Should we be worried?

“I think we already have enough information to know that this variant has the potential to cause a major further epidemic, worse than we had previously predicted,” Hayward said, noting that an increase in transmissibility, even given the same mortality rate, would lead to many more deaths.

Noakes said: “I think over the next few months we’re going to be balancing restrictions … until we have sufficient coverage with the vaccine to be able to relax a little bit.”

Police Funding Settlement for Devon and Cornwall – Labour’s view

Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a one-year funding settlement for policing on December 17th including £414m to help recruit an additional 6000 officers nationally and £288m that would depend on all Police and Crime Commissioners increasing the Police Precept in Council tax for local residents by £15 for a Band D property. This means an additional £18.7m for Devon and Cornwall if the Commissioner raises the Precept to the full extent.

Nick Thomas Symonds MP – Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary said: 

‘The Prime Minister’s promise on police recruiting is unravelling. The Tories are putting the cost of extra officers onto local Council Tax payers and demanding £120m of “efficiency savings” which will mean further cuts to already overstretched police forces. This settlement also expects the police force to recruit the same number of officers last year but for less money. You simply can’t trust the Conservatives to keep people safe.’

Gareth Derrick – Labour’s candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in Devon and Cornwall, comments:

“Funding for more police officers is very welcome, but the Home Secretary’s announcement doesn’t go far enough as yet again it relies heavily on local taxpayers to make up for what should be put right by government. The impact of cuts imposed by the Conservative’s since 2010 can’t be underestimated. These cuts brought about a tremendous strain on police resources across Devon and Cornwall which continue to bite hard into the ability to keep our communities safe.

If our Police and Crime Commissioner implements this plan it will need a seriously inflation-busting rise in the police precept by nearly 7% next year, adding up to a rise of over 30% in the past 4 years. What are we getting for these huge increases?

There have been big challenges for policing with the pandemic, and our communities are struggling with an unprecedented economic downturn and worse to come with the Brexit uncertainties. This is simply unfair and it will hit Devon and Cornwall harder than most. Sadly, we’ll be shouldering the responsibility for getting policing back on track that should be met by central government.

It is sad too that the settlement does little to boost other roles such as PCSOs, the civilian Control Room staff and forensics teams. All of these are vital to ensure the best results from policing and need proper funding too.”

  1. Details of the Home Office Provisional Police Funding Settlement can be found here.

Gareth Derrick  Labour Party candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, Devon and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Email: contact@garethderrick.org Website: www.garethderrick.org

Six more coronavirus deaths recorded in East Devon and one in Exeter

Six more coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded in East Devon and another one in Exeter, according to the latest weekly figures.

East Devon Reporter eastdevonnews.co.uk 

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data published on Tuesday (December 15) shows the seven-day toll of 38 across Devon and Cornwall is the region’s second-highest since the start of May.

The figures relate to deaths which occurred in the week of November 28 – December 4 and were registered up to December 12.

Another three have been backdated to the week of November 21-27.

Five of the deaths recorded in East Devon were at hospital and one was at a care home.

The Exeter fatality was in hospital.

There were six deaths in Plymouth; seven in Torbay; five North Devon; two each in Teignbridge, Mid Devon and the South Hams; and one in both Torridge and West Devon.

Seven deaths due to coronavirus were recorded in Cornwall.

The previous seven-day period saw 40 Covid-related deaths – four of them in East Devon and ten in Exeter – recorded across Devon and Cornwall.

In total, 67 Covid-19 deaths have now been registered in East Devon; 32 of them in hospital, 30 in care homes and five at home.

The total for Exeter is 54; 30 of them in hospital, 22 in care homes and two at home.

Some 779 coronavirus-related deaths have been registered across Devon and Cornwall; 449 in hospitals, 257 in care homes, 59 at home, one in a hospice and three ‘elsewhere’.

Of these, 132 have been in Plymouth; 102 in Torbay; 49 in Teignbridge; 37 in North Devon; 28 in Torridge; 27 in Mid Devon; 23 in West Devon; and 22 in the South Hams

A total of 238 deaths due to the virus have been registered in Cornwall.

The ONS figures for Devon and Cornwall include people who have died at home, in hospital, in care homes, hospices, ‘other’ communal places, or ‘elsewhere’.

They are broken down by the local authority area in which the deaths were registered.

Government figures show at total of 2,024 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in East Devon to date. The number for Exeter is 2,961.

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 7 December

Devon Covid-19 hotspots show rates higher than England average

The latest Covid-19 figures for Devon continue to show infection rates rising steadily and more clusters emerging across the county.

Paul Greaves www.devonlive.com 

Fremington & Instow in North Devon still had the most new positive cases, 42, during the rolling seven-day period up December 15. Chagford, Princetown & Dartmoor saw a steep rise from 16 to 41 cases.

Elsewhere, Wonford & St Loyes had 16 cases in Exeter. The city has seen a 23 per cent case rate increase over seven days. The average rate per 100,000 of population is just above 100. Surrounding areas are now starting to see increases with Cranbrook, Broadclyst & Stoke Canon registering 22.

Clusters in East Devon included Honiton North & East, (21) and Exmouth Brixignton (20). Rates of infection in both areas were above 300 per 100,000 of population. The current rate across England is 262 and rising.

The latest data comes as the Prime Minister announced that London and parts of the South East would enter a new Tier 4 of restrictions, effectively putting million of people into a new lockdown.

The cluster map was updated on Sunday afternoon (December 20).

It shows a decreasing number of areas recording three or fewer cases – though much of Mid Devon, South Hams, Torbay and parts of Teignbridge are still relatively free of the virus. Clusters are areas with three or more.

Overall Devon had 944 people with at least one positive test result int he most recent seven day period. The rate per 100,000 across the county, excluding Torbay and Plymouth, was 118.

Cases in Devon (December 9 – December 15)

Area, Number

Fremington & Instow 42

Chagford, Princetown & Dartmoor 41

Cranbrook, Broadclyst & Stoke Canon 22

Honiton North & East 21

Bideford South & East 21

Exmouth Brixington 20

Roundswell & Landkey 20

Woolwell & Lee Mill 18

Feniton & Whimple 16

Sidbury, Offwell & Beer 16

Wonford & St Loye’s 16

Kingsteignton 16

Ottery St Mary & West Hill 15

Uffculme & Hemyock 15

Barnstaple Pilton 15

Crediton 14

Chudleigh & Bovey Tracey 14

Tavistock 14

Exmouth Littleham 13

Exmouth Withycombe Raleigh 13

Willand, Sampford Peverell & Halberton 13

Barnstaple South 13

Braunton 13

Ivybridge 13

Ogwell, Mile End & Teigngrace 13

Exmouth Town 12

Central Exeter 12

Heavitree West & Polsloe 12

Barnstaple Central 12

Poppleford, Otterton & Woodbury 11

Sidmouth Sidford 11

Alphington & Marsh Barton 11

Axminster 10

Countess Wear & Topsham 10

Pennsylvania & University 10

St Leonard’s 10

Bratton Fleming, Goodleigh & Kings Heanton 10

Lynton & Combe Martin 10

Dawlish South 10

Shiphay & the Willows 10

Exwick & Foxhayes 9

Middlemoor & Sowton 9

St Thomas West 9

Cullompton 9

Tiverton West 9

Dawlish North 9

Honiton South & West 8

Pinhoe & Whipton North 8

Tiverton North & Outer 8

South Molton 8

Woolacombe, Georgeham & Croyde 8

Bishopsteignton & Shaldon 8

Moretonhampstead, Lustleigh & East Dartmoor

Hartland Coast 8

Bere Alston, Buckland Monachorum & Yelverton

Hatherleigh, Exbourne & North Tawton 8

Exmouth Halsdon 7

Seaton 7

St James’s Park & Hoopern 7

Bradninch, Silverton & Thorverton 7

Ilfracombe West 7

Ashburton & Buckfastleigh 7

Newton Abbot, Highweek 7

Holsworthy, Bradworthy & Welcombe 7

Lifton, Lamerton & Bridestowe 7

Kilmington, Colyton & Uplyme 6

Mincinglake & Beacon Heath 6

Salcombe, Malborough & Thurlestone 6

Blatchcombe & Blagdon 6

Shebbear, Cookworthy & Broadheath 6

Horrabridge & Mary Tavy 6

Okehampton 6

Clyst, Exton & Lympstone 5

St Thomas East 5

Barnstaple Sticklepath 5

Upton & Hele 5

Westward Ho! & Northam South 5

Winkleigh & High Bickington 5

Budleigh Salterton 4

Dunkesewell, Upottery & Stockland 4

Sidmouth Town 4

Bampton, Holcombe & Westleigh 4

Morchard Bishop, Copplestone & Newton St Cy

Tiverton East 4

Chillington, Torcross & Stoke Fleming 4

Marldon, Stoke Gabriel & Kingswear 4

Heathfield & Liverton 4

Newton Abbot, Broadlands & Wolborough 4

Brixham Town 4

Higher Brixham 4

Preston & Shorton 4

Torquay Central 4

Watcombe 4

Appledore & Northam North 4

Great Torrington 4

Heavitree East & Whipton South 3

Bishop’s Nympton, Witheridge & Chulmleigh 3

Dartmouth 3

Kingsbridge 3

Kingskerswell 3

Newton Abbot, Milber & Buckland 3

Starcross & Exminster 3

Chelston, Cockington & Livermead 3

Churston & Galmpton 3

Paignton Central 3

Bideford North 3

Bow, Lapford & Yeoford 0

Ilfracombe East 0

Loddiswell & Dartington 0

South Brent & Cornwood 0

Totnes Town 0

Wembury, Brixton & Newton Ferrers 0

Yealmpton, Modbury & Aveton Gifford 0

Ipplepen & Broadhempston 0

Newton Abbot, Town Centre 0

Tedburn, Shillingford & Higher Ashton 0

Teignmouth North 0

Teignmouth South 0

Babbacombe & Plainmoor 0

Clifton & Maidenway 0

Ellacombe 0

Goodrington & Roselands 0

St Marychurch & Maidencombe 0

Wellswood 0

Is this the start of the third wave?

According to the ZOE COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey figures based on swab tests data from up to five days ago, daily new cases of COVID-19 in the UK are rising again but there are big differences between regions. Regions like Wales and London are seeing sharp rises, whereas in  the North East and Yorkshire cases are still falling, and others are rising slowly. 

Covid.joinzoe.com Data Press Release 18 December 2020

Key findings from ZOE COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey this week: 

  • There are currently 26,897 daily new symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on average over the two weeks up to 13 December (excluding care homes) 
  • This compares to 19,190 daily new symptomatic cases a week ago
  • The UK R value is 1.1.
  • Regional R values are: England, 1.1. Wales, 1.2. Scotland, 0.9. (full table below) 
  • Wales with an R value of 1.2 now has more cases than at the peak of its second wave before the firebreaker and is still rising rapidly with more cases than anywhere else in the UK
  • In London, where cases never truly peaked since April, the number of daily new cases is climbing again and nearly 10 percent of tests are positive. There are wide six fold differences across the boroughs. Enfield, Havering and Merton are the worst affected areas. Westminster, Kingston upon Thames and Hounslow are the least affected areas (see a map and a graph of for London below)
  • In most other UK regions, cases are either steady or rising, the only exception is the North East and Yorkshire where daily new cases continue to fall 
  • Age groups: cases in the over 60s are slightly up from last week, notably in Wales, which is a key metric linked to hospital admissions (see graph below)

The ZOE COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey figures are based on around one million weekly reporters and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on data from 10,442 swab tests done between 29 November to 13 December 2020. 

ZOE COVID Symptom Study English Tier Dashboard 

With the recent Tier change announcements, the ZOE COVID Symptom Study’s English Tier Dashboard [**] this week shows the regions that are performing badly in Tier 2 and well in Tier 3. Full table of results below. 

Tim Spector OBE, lead scientist on the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app and Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, comments on the latest data:

With just a week until Christmas Day it’s a bleak picture across the UK, particularly for Wales and London. Our data shows that cases and hospitalisations are rising again, which worryingly could mean the start of a third wave earlier than we expected. Sadly, Christmas 2020 won’t be normal . People should stay in small groups, avoid travelling to and from higher risk areas and socialise outdoors. People also need to know about the 20+ symptoms of early infection they can experience including fatigue and headache and not take risks if they start feeling unwell. There are no exceptions, everyone needs to take care, but we are urging people to consider postponing Christmas socialising until Easter.”

Graphs and tables for ZOE COVID Symptom Study – 18th December 2020:

Worst performing regions in Tier 2:

Best performing regions in Tier 3:

Incidence / Daily new symptomatic cases regional breakdown [*]

Borough-level Prevalence map of London

Borough-level prevalence rates in London

The COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey results over time for the UK

Table of R Values

Map of UK prevalence figures: 

[Owl expands the prevalence map for Devon and Cornwall below to show the Devon current “hot spots” and that, for the moment East Devon is on a per with Cornwall.]

Estimated rate of people with Symptomatic COVID across age groups

 NOTES TO EDITORS

[*] Note that incidence estimates by NHS region are calculated separately from the UK nations and  they don’t necessarily add up to the total for England.

[**] Explanation of how the English Tier Dashboard is created. Using data from the app and from publicly available sources, the ZOE app team has created a way of tracking regions based on alignment with the five key indicators the Government has outlined as its criteria for the current tiers in England (five indicators detailed below). Based on this data, the English Tier Dashboard ranks the regions to show which areas best and worst according to the government’s own criteria. Note that prevalence rates indicate the total numbers with symptoms and typically lag the changes in daily new symptomatic cases (incidence). 

Government indicators are: 

Sources to recreate the government indicators:

CSS data:

  • Prevalence and prevalence rate in the 60+ age group is computed  on the tier subregion level.
  • Positivity rate and R is computed  on NHS region level.

Publicly available NHS data:

  • The % hospital bed occupancy is calculated as a ratio of the Total number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospital on the reporting date (source: coronavirus.gov.uk, frequency: daily) and the overnight bed availability for acute and general cases (source: NHS Statistics, frequency: quarterly)

..//

This analysis for incidence data requires swab testing, which was kindly provided by the Department of Health and Social Care for England. As Scotland and Wales are not yet offering tests to our app users, we provided indirect estimates using countrywide averages and wide confidence limits. Testing is happening in Northern Ireland, but the number of participants is too few to generate an accurate estimate. These figures exclude care homes as there is not enough data from the app to estimate this population.

..//

The COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey has been running since early May when the COVID Symptom Study commenced the daily swab testing programme provided by the Test and Trace. The CSS has so far recorded over a million swab results from app users. The COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey estimates the number of current COVID-19 positive cases in the community based on the information logged by users in the app and the results from the swab testing programme. It identifies differences in numbers within the regions throughout the UK, and tracks the change in estimated cases over time. It is the largest survey of its kind in the UK. We estimate from a sub-study of app users with antibodies that the asymptomatic rate is around 19%, which should be added when comparing to general surveys like ONS. The paper is live on the Journal of Infection: https://www.journalofinfection.com/article/S0163-4453(20)30653-8/fulltext