Well, That Was Fast. UK COVID Strain Likely NOT More Deadly

In my post about the Sunday NY Times article on the B.1.1.7 COVID variant, I expressed skepticism that it really was substantially more deadly than other variants.  While this is possible, on average we expect viruses to mutate in a way that they are more communicable but less deadly (there are no rewards in the parasite world for killing the host).

Specifically I said:

My personal bet is that we will see a story buried on page 34 in August saying that original relative death studies for this [B.1.1.7] variant appear to have been exaggerated.  When the NY Times is hyping a scare story that increases the power of government, particularly in a Democratic administration, take the under.

Well, I was wrong.  Rather than in August, the predicted story was buried in the Wall Street Journal one day later

Clear evidence has emerged that B.1.1.7 transmits more easily than earlier variants, which helped enable its rapid spread. Whether the variant is associated with more severe disease and death has been less certain, however...

In the new study, the researchers took samples collected in early November from 341 Covid-19 patients admitted to University College London Hospitals or North Middlesex University Hospital. The researchers sequenced genetic material from the samples to determine the viral variant that caused the infection, used the test results to estimate how much virus the patients harbored and then compared the two groups.

Nearly 60% of the Covid-19 patients had an infection caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, and patients hospitalized with B.1.1.7 were younger, had fewer health conditions and more often received an oxygen mask than those admitted with other variants, the study found.

Yet the researchers didn’t find that those with a B.1.1.7 infection had more severe disease outcomes such as needing ventilation or dying, after accounting for other factors such as age, ethnicity and underlying conditions.

I will be more careful than the NY Times, who cherry-picked one study result on the far end of the scale of results to date, and acknowledge that the study results -- all based on small samples and uncontrolled population groups -- are mixed.  But evidence both of prior meta-studies as well as this new one give us little reason to believe that this variant is substantially more deadly.