Boris Johnson: New variant may have ‘higher degree of mortality’
The Prime Minister declared on Friday that scientists had found the variant, which appeared late last year in south-east England, may be associated with “a higher degree of mortality”. The announcement caused panic. But it later emerged Nervtag, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, had assigned it as a “realistic possibility” and that there were reservations about the quality of the evidence.
Even if the mortality rate was higher, experts said, the risk was “very, very small” to most people. In addition, vaccines are effective against the variant.
“We might wonder what the political agenda is in making such a big deal out of such flimsy materials”, said Professor Robert Dingwall, a Nervtag member speaking in a personal capacity.
We can reveal that scientists on Nervtag disagreed over the results, based on data first studied a week before the PM’s announcement.
At that meeting Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London revealed that his modelling had shown the Kent variant was more deadly.
However, others had reached different conclusions.
The Prime Minister declared scientists had found a ‘more deadly’ variant of the virus
The following week Nervtag held another meeting. Although this was shown more evidence suggesting an increased risk could be possible, the data was considered so uncertain that there was reluctance within the group to make a public announcement until more research was carried out.
The scientists decided to release the data as long as it was clear they had strong reservations about its quality. Prof Ferguson then revealed his findings to ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, before Mr Johnson’s official address had taken place.
A furious row has now broken out with some scientists suggesting the announcements were intended to scare people. Nervtag chairman, Professor Peter Horby, said that had the data not been released the public might have suspected a “cover up”.
He said: “I think a very important principle is transparency.
“Scientists are looking at the possibility that there is increased severity… and after a week of looking at the data we came to the conclusion that it was a realistic possibility. If we were not telling people about this we would be accused of covering it up.”
Professor Peter Horby stresses the importance of transparency
He added: “If you look at it as a relative change like 30 or 40 percent then it sounds really bad but a big change in a very small risk takes it from a very small number to a slightly bigger, but still very small number, so for most people the risk is very, very small.
“People need to put it into perspective. This is a risk for certain age groups and that risk may have increased but for most people it is still not a serious disease.”
However, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of Sage subgroup the Spi-M, told the BBC: “I was actually quite surprised the news had been announced at a news conference. It seems to have gone up a little bit from about 10 people per thousand to about 13 which is quite a small rise but it’s based on a relatively small amount of data.
“I worry when we report things preemptively where the data are not really particularly strong.”
Professor Hugh Pennington of the University of Aberdeen, accused the Government of waging a “propaganda campaign” to get the public scared enough to follow lockdown measures.
He said: “It is all very frustrating. In my heart of hearts I believe there is a propaganda campaign to get the public very scared.
Dr Mike Tildesley says he worries about preemptive reporting that lacks support of strong data
“Viruses are always mutating. I have a degree of scepticism about the data. The first announcement that the new variant had become more transmissible was a very handy excuse for cancelling Christmas as rates were rising – in fact it is extremely hard to prove transmissibility without infecting people with the virus which would
“The release of lockdown before Christmas, I think, was more likely to explain the surge in cases. I suspect this new announcement that the virus is nastier is adding weight to the stick with which the public is being pummelled. These announcements are to make us scared by whiffs of incomplete evidence. We should not be making a rushed statement until we have harder evidence to show it has changed in virulence and what that has to do with mutations.
“It is far too early to talk about that in any confident way. None of this should mean that we should change any policy and nor does it mean that the virus will escape the use of the vaccine.”
Professor Dingwall, an honorary member of the Faculty of Public Health, said there were other environmental factors which could also explain an increase in mortality which were nothing to do with the virus.
Professor Dingwall explained there were other factors which could explain an increase in mortality
Speaking in a personal capacity he said: “If there is an increase, it is so small that other possible causes, like NHS workload or seasonal impacts on vulnerability, need to be ruled out before considering new restrictions or thinking the present ones are insufficient.
“It is not a scientific matter, but we might wonder what the political agenda is in making such a big deal out of such flimsy materials.
“Is it really more to do with shutting down a debate about the view that we should be considering what a tolerable rate of deaths might be from an endemic infection rather than continuing with the devastating impact of an elimination strategy that is more moonshine than moonshot?”
Prof Graham Medley, a co-author of the Nervtag report said it remains an “open question” whether the new variant is more likely to lead to death. “In terms of making the situation worse, it is not a game-changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”
Government adviser Professor Susan Michie said tighter restrictions were needed. She said: “Do what we did in March but consider other things we could tighten. The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be.”