Coronavirus variant: Expert outlines details of new strain
Boris Johnson justified his decision to bring in more restrictions last weekend – which led to millions having to cancel Christmas and more the 40 countries closing their borders to the UK – on findings from Nervtag, the group that looks at new viral threats. But sources with knowledge of the meeting insist most of its members made no recommendations on restrictions, instead suggesting more research was needed to understand the true risk. Minutes of the meetings back up this claim.
One insider said they believed forceful lobbying by a small number of experts pushed the government into the action, despite the fact most of the Nervtag members had not called for it.
“I think the members were probably surprised to hear the Prime Minister using Nervtag’s findings as the reasons for the new rules”, said a source.
“Nervtag unanimously did not say anything about new restrictions. It was more that pressure was made on the chair to take a line when he took the report to the government chief medical officer. Something happened between the Nervtag meeting and the presentation that changed the outcome.”
They suggested that the new strain gave pro-lockdown scientists the opportunity to lobby for tighter restrictions as well as allowing the government to defend a reversal of its controversial relaxation of Christmas rules.
The advice was then used to justify new lockdown measures – a move that reportedly surprised some Nervtag members.
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The minutes show that the group unanimously only had “moderate confidence” the new strain was more transmissible than other variants concluding a new body of scientists be “convened to provide further advice on risk and risk mitigation measures”. The minutes make no reference to the need for any new restrictions.
Other scientists have questioned whether it was even possible to reach the conclusion the new strain was up to 70 per cent more transmissible, a claim made by Mr Johnson on announcing the new tiers. This has since been revised to 56 per cent.
The potential importance of the mutated strain –VU1 -202012/01 –was first recognised earlier this month although the strain itself was first identified in a positive swab taken from a patient in Kent on September 20.
Reported cases have soared in the recent weeks and there are reports that a new national lockdown is likely.
But some experts suggest the increased rates are more likely caused by behavioural changes – triggered by the lockdown policy itself which has sparked bursts of intense social mixing in anticipation of imminent new lockdowns.
Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence based medicine at Oxford University said: “No one can answer the question about how transmissible this new variant is. The seventy per cent more transmissible cannot be verified.
“I would not have made this assumption without proper evidence and this does not exist and this government announcement has created widespread panic with borders shutting and new tier restrictions. I don’t understand the idea that we had to react with a sense of emergency.”
Professor Heneghan, who has studied public health including virus behaviour over two decades, added that behaviour as well as an increase in testing could equally explain the increase in cases: “The increased case rate could also be a result of the larger amount of testing we are doing and there is a spurious association between these two things.
“There are many other explanations which could account for the increase in cases – the last weeks of December towards the end of the school term are always a more dangerous time when it comes to respiratory pathogens and schools may have had a part to play in this.
“The government now needs to widen out the group of scientists that it is using to test its assumptions and the way it is looking at the data.
We have been six months doing the same mode of operation – lockdowns and release – and this is yet another time the government has panicked.
“But if there is a transmission advantage over the new strain it is only slight and we need scientists with the proper skill set to interpret the data properly.”
Professor Hugh Pennington, a leading expert in public health at the University of Aberdeen said: “There is no need to panic at all about the new variant. The virus is changing all the time which is what viruses do.
“It is very convenient to use as a reason for scuppering Christmas which the government may have realised it should have done anyway. The reaction is not proportionate but it could be they had to find a scientific reason to ban Christmas other than a government U-turn which doesn’t look good.
“They should have realised this would have huge repercussions on border closures across Europe and that this would be a bad unintended consequence.”
He added: “There is no evidence from Nervtag or elsewhere that this causes a 70 per cent increase in transmission. Transmission something which is extremely hard to measure and at the moment we don’t know why cases are rising.
“Correlation of the new variant with a rise in cases is not causation. It might be more transmissible but I don’t know of any other virus that changes transmissibility like this one is supposed to have done.”
“People are not behaving as well and spreading the virus that way and I would blame human behaviour for the increase in cases as this is a more convincing explanation for the increased rates.
“If I was to explore this the idea that increased infections are caused by a new variant this would only be a footnote rather than a reason to jump up and down and say we are all doomed.”
Leading public health expert Professor Allyson Pollock said: “Parliament must be recalled to consider the evidence and the enormous harms.”
Prof Brendan Wren, an expert in disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Few countries worldwide are using such forensic approaches to identify new variants as they arise. There are likely many SARS-CoV-2 variants worldwide that remain undetected and it may well be that the new (501Y) variant did not arise in UK. The consequences of the highlighting the 501Y variant is that the UK may be treated as the lepers of the world with further travel chaos and detrimental social and economic consequences.
“The UK may be victims of their own technical success in highlighting the emergence of the 501Y variant.”
The strain has already been confirmed in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy. There have also been unverified reports in Belgium. France and South Africa also believe they may have had cases though this has not been confirmed. The new strain which has been found in many parts of the UK including London, the South East, Scotland and Wales.
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