PROF DAVID LIVERMORE: Is the mutant virus really out of control?

Is the mutant virus really out of control? Professor DAVID LIVERMORE argues the escalating mood of crisis is unwarranted

Rarely has the midwinter seemed so bleak. Lockdown has returned with a new intensity, Christmas is curtailed by official edict and around half the population is effectively under house arrest.

The Government justifies this draconian approach by warning that a dangerous new strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’, to use the alarming phraseology of Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Tough action is said to be required because, according to the experts on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), this novel variant could be 70 per cent more contagious than the earlier form of Covid-19.

DAVID LIVERMORE: Lockdown has returned with a new intensity, Christmas is curtailed by official edict and around half the population is effectively under house arrest.Pictured passengers at Heathrow

‘This is the worst news,’ said a Nervtag spokesman yesterday, adding that ‘we really need to batten down the hatches to stop the spread of this strain’.

Yet, for all the grim rhetoric, I suspect that this escalating mood of crisis is unwarranted.

For in reality, there thus far is little hard data to justify the claim that, despite facing a more infectious strain, our country is in the grip of a particularly harmful new type of virus, nor the belief that ever-more authoritarian restrictions will be effective.

Even Nervtag itself, in its paper that so unnerved the Government at the weekend, admitted it had only ‘moderate confidence’ the new strain – VUI-202012/01 – demonstrates ‘a substantial increase in transmissibility’.

Such uncertainty is hardly surprising given RNA viruses such as Covid-19 mutate easily and frequently. 

DAVID LIVERMORE: Despite the Government’s recent dramatic show of urgency, this variant appears to have been first identified in Kent as long ago as September, even before the second national lockdown was imposed in England. Pictured pedestrians in Oxford Street

So far, more than 20,000 variants have been recognised, with most of the differences minor and inconsequential.

Despite the Government’s recent dramatic show of urgency, this variant appears to have been first identified in Kent as long ago as September, even before the second national lockdown was imposed in England.

And that begs two questions: First, if VUI-202012/01 is as harmful as the Government suggests, why did ministers not act sooner, instead of letting the public plan for a relaxed Christmas? 

Second, if tough new controls are the only answer, why was the lockdown lifted in December?

These contradictions arise precisely because of the lack of evidence behind the fear that VUI-202012/01 is sweeping through the country like wildfire. 

So far its spread seems to be focused on populations that had little exposure to Covid-19 until now, such as in Kent and East Anglia.

Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College

The problem is that, beyond the frightening headlines, there is little concrete information to underwrite the official claim that the situation is getting ‘out of control’. 

With that in mind, the Government must address two critical points: First, with symptomatic cases of VUI-202012/01, what proportion of an infected person’s household also becomes infected?

For ‘normal’ coronavirus, the infection rate for such contacts is 15 to 20 per cent, rising to 30 per cent for spouses. 

But are those proportions higher for the new variant? Surely the answer must exist in the wealth of data collected for the testing regime?

Second, how many have been taken to hospital directly from the community with the new variant, and how many have caught it inside? 

Not only will this tell us whether it’s more lethal but, if the variant really is more contagious, we should expect to see more in-hospital transmission, as that is where cases will be clustered.

Until those questions are answered, we cannot rule out the possibility the recent rise in Covid cases has little to do with the new variant’s transmissibility, but is largely the consequence of the expansion in Test and Trace.

Meanwhile, if it does transpire that the new strain is more easily transmitted, we must remember that such a scenario isn’t always a bad thing.

In line with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory about the survival of the fittest, it is a fact of life that viruses evolve and adapt. There are a number of new features that can ensure a particular strain survives.

DAVID LIVERMORE: The Government justifies this draconian approach by warning that a dangerous new strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’, to use the alarming phraseology of Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Pictured Matt Hancock

One is a lower infectious dose, where the victim needs to inhale fewer virus particles to become infected. Another is the creation of a milder or asymptomatic form of the disease, which means carriers continue to go about their daily lives, thereby spreading the contagion more extensively.

Both of these factors underpin the classic development of infectious diseases, including Covid-19 – that they generally evolve over time to become more transmissible and less lethal.

That could be what is happening with the new variant of Covid, which is said to be more infectious, though we do not yet know how severe it is.

What we do know is that the collateral damage caused by lockdowns is enormous, from business failures and mass unemployment to poor mental health and chronic loneliness.

Amid such a devastating backdrop, our Government must not ignore the consequences of failing to look at the hard data on the new variant’s spread in households and hospitals.

Professor David Livermore is a Professor in Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia and member of Time4Recovery

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