Children may be more at-risk of catching the new mutated coronavirus variant than any previous strains, Government advisers today claimed.
Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist of Imperial College London and member of No10’s advisory group NERVTAG, said there was a ‘hint’ children – who have barely been affected by the pandemic so far – were more susceptible to the mutation.
The academic, known as ‘Professor Lockdown’, was instrumental in the UK’s March restrictions but stepped down from his advisory position on SAGE after he flaunted the guidance he helped implement to visit his married lover.
He said it is possible the surge of the new variant, called B.1.1.7, during the November lockdown — which occurred in school term-time — could have happened because the variant is better at infecting children than past SARS-CoV-2 iterations.
Researchers believe the new virus strain, which Matt Hancock said is ‘out of control’, is between 50 and 70 per cent more infectious, but don’t believe it is more deadly or causes any more severe disease in either adults or children.
The risk posed by the rapidly spreading coronavirus forced Boris Johnson to cancel Christmas for millions of Britons in the South East, plunging vast swathes of England into draconian Tier Four restrictions at the weekend.
The tough curbs are akin to the national lockdown of November and force shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four areas.
Concern over the new highly-transmissible virus strain are fuelling speculation that millions of families could be tuck in Tier Four until Easter. Sir Patrick Vallance tonight hinted that more areas will be plunged into the toughest restrictions within weeks.
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Children are more at-risk of catching the new variant of coronavirus than the previous strain, Government advisers today revealed
There is not enough evidence yet to prove the latest theory of children being more susceptible, Professor Ferguson said, but it is a prominent hypothesis.
He revealed that the number of cases of the new variant in under-15s is significantly higher from a statistical viewpoint than other strains – but did not reveal any exact figures.
Speaking a virtual media briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre today, he said: ‘There is a hint that it is has a higher propensity to infect children. That may perhaps explain some of the differences but we haven’t established any sort of causality.’
Other experts were quick to add the data is preliminary and no proof of causation has yet been found.
SAGE expert warns new mutant Covid will likely become the ‘dominant global strain’
The mutated coronavirus spreading rapidly in the UK will likely become the dominant global strain, a SAGE scientist warned today as Gibraltar became the sixth place outside of Britain to detect a case of the new variant.
Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, said the new variant would ‘out-compete all the other strains’ because it has the evolutionary advantage of being able to spread more easily.
The strain – called VUI-202012/01 – has already been confirmed in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy, There have also been unverified reports of at least one case in Belgium.
France, and South Africa also believe they have cases of the mutation, but these have not been confirmed. French health minister Olivier Veran said it is ‘entirely possible’ the new variant is already circulating in France, despite tests not picking it up yet, while officials in South Africa say they’ve detected a strain very similar to the UK version.
Scotland and Wales have both picked up cases of the strain in recent weeks, although it is spreading predominantly in London and the South East of England, where it’s thought to account for 60 per cent of all new infections.
It is now present in all parts of the UK apart from Northern Ireland, but First Minister Arlene Foster said it’s ‘probable’ the virus is already circulating there, too.
When asked on Sky News whether the mutant coronavirus will become the dominant strain around the world, Professor Semple said: ‘I suspect it will, or strains like it will.
‘Because the virus has the evolutionary advantage in transmitting more quickly, it will out-compete all the other strains, and so it will naturally do that.
‘As immunity comes into the community more widely, then you’ll start to see more pressure on the virus and you’re more likely to see other escapes of other variations.’
The two earliest samples of the mutated virus were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.
As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities across England, although the true number will be higher.
They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London.
By mid-November, 28 per cent of cases in London were attributable to it. And in the week starting December 9, it was responsible for 62 per cent.
Minutes from the official NERVTAG meeting also indicate the new strain increases the crucial R rate by at least 0.4. When R is above 1 the virus is increasing. If it is below 1, it is decreasing.
Children have throughout the coronavirus pandemic constituted far fewer cases than for other respiratory diseases, including flu.
The leading theory for this is due to how the coronavirus enters human cells, via a receptor called ACE2 which is found on many cells in the upper respiratory tract.
As a result, Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London and a NERVTAG member, explained this made adults ‘easy targets’ compared to children.
This is because the amount of ACE2 a person expresses naturally and steadily increases over time, with young children having very little.
‘I think on the topic of children we’ve got to be careful about what we say. We are not saying this is a virus that specifically attacks children or is any more specific in its ability to infect children,’ she said.
‘But we know that SARS-CoV-2 as it emerged as a virus was not as efficient at infecting children as it was adults.
‘The previous virus had a harder time binding ACE2 and getting into cells and therefore adults, which have abundant ACE2 in their nose and throat, were the easy targets and children were difficult to infect.
‘The newer virus has an easier time doing that and children are therefore equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults.
‘Given their mixing patterns you would expect to see more children being infected. It’s not because the virus is specifically targeting children, but that it is now less inhibited.’
Professor Ferguson adds that if this hypothesis is found to be true it may explain a ‘significant proportion’ of the transmission increase.
Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons were ordered to shut again in London and swathes of the South East, with residents told not to leave Tier Four.
Minutes from the Nervtag meeting from December 18 said the experts had ‘moderate confidence’ that the new variant ‘demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants’.
This has now been upgraded to ‘high confidence’, said Professor Peter Horby, chairman of Nervtag and Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health at the University of Oxford.
Today official figures reveal Britain’s second wave of Covid is continuing to worsen, with health bosses recording another 33,364 cases of the disease.
Department of Health statistics show daily infections have risen 64.7 per cent in a week, with today’s figure up from the 20,263 posted last Monday.
Deaths are still stable, however, with today’s fatality count being 7.3 per cent down on last week’s 232.
Matt Hancock yesterday hinted tougher measures will be needed even after Christmas for the rest of the country, saying the disease was now ‘out of control’ and repeating warnings about the Covid mutation that No10’s advisers claim is behind the rapid spread. ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson claimed the harshest curbs may ‘possibly’ have to stay until the spring, when millions of Brits will have received their jab.
MailOnline today revealed that parts of the nation which escaped the harshest measures have seen a dramatic rise in positive tests since the start of December, bolstering fears Number 10 will need to take tougher action after Christmas to tackle the new variant of Covid.
Crawley in Sussex saw cases rise almost five-fold since the beginning of the month, with the borough’s infection rate soaring from 40.9 positive tests per 100,000 people in the week ending December 1 to 200.2 over the seven-day spell that finished December 15.