Surging COVID-19 cases in the U.K. have left the country behind the rest of Europe, and at the same time former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is calling for urgent research into a variant known as delta plus.
For two weeks, the number of new cases has wavered between 35,000 and 40,000 a day, and on Monday it nudged closer to 50,000 — the highest since the July peak of the delta variant outbreak.
The daily death toll has often exceeded 100 since the summer, adding to an overall toll of more than 138,000, second only to Russia in Europe.
“Sadly, at the moment the U.K. has a higher level of COVID-19 than most other comparable countries, this is seen not just in positive tests but in hospital admissions and deaths,” said Jim Naismith, professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford.
Across the English Channel, France is recording some 4,000 cases a day and Germany 10,000. Deaths are running at about 30 and 60 daily, respectively.
Scientists have already voiced fears that the high underlying number of cases could overload the state-run National Health Service, which is often under pressure in autumn and winter from respiratory infections.
“We always knew the coming months could be challenging,” an official spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Monday.
“Obviously different countries are potentially at different stages of their vaccination programs and have different measures in place, so it’s difficult to compare and contrast,” he said.
“But it’s important to strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.”
The U.K. has also lagged in rolling out vaccines to adolescents amid concerns that some side effects undermined the net benefit of the shots, given children are less likely to become seriously ill. The delay meant most older children weren’t offered a vaccine until the school year had started, and they’re now seeing the highest levels of infection in the population.
Prevalence of COVID-19 is growing among those age 17 and younger, the latest React-1 study led by Imperial College London found last week. The reproduction rate in that age group was 1.18, meaning that on average every 10 young people infected are passing it on to about 12 others.
The delta plus strain Gottlieb highlighted includes the K417N mutation, which has stoked concern because it’s also harbored by the beta variant that’s associated with an increased risk of reinfection.
“We need urgent research to figure out if this delta plus is more transmissible, has partial immune evasion,” he said in a tweet. “There’s no clear indication that it’s considerably more transmissible, but we should work to more quickly characterize these and other new variants.”
U.K. researchers said in late June that there’s no evidence yet to suggest the additional mutation is more worrisome. A German paper out earlier this month found while both delta and delta plus infect lung cells more efficiently than the original coronavirus, delta plus doesn’t appear to be significantly more dangerous than delta.
Gottlieb, who serves on Pfizer’s board of directors, led the FDA from 2017 to 2019. He has been promoting his new book, “Uncontrolled Spread: Why Covid-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic.”
In England, the percentage of people testing positive continued to increase in the week ending Oct. 9, with an estimated 890,000 people having COVID-19, or about 1 in 60, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The percentage of people testing positive from Aug. 29 through Oct. 9 was highest among those in school years seven to 11, which corresponds roughly to ages 11 through 15, according to the ONS. More than 8% of people in that age group tested positive in the period, compared with only 0.6% for those ages 25 to 34.
To date, the U.K. has recorded almost 140,000 fatalities linked to COVID-19.
Britain has mainly used the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was shown to be less effective at preventing infection from the delta variant than the messenger RNA vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna predominantly used in Europe.
The country also began its vaccination program earlier, prompting questions about whether immunity is now waning, similar to Israel’s experience.
Only 41% of those vaccinated have received a booster shot so far, raising further questions about the effectiveness of the follow-up program.
Attitudes to mask-wearing also differ: According to a YouGov poll, around 15% of Britons said they never wear a mask in public. In Europe, it was about 5%.
The survey also indicated that far more Britons are returning to public transport or large gatherings than in mainland Europe.
That has prompted criticism that the government has become too lax on regulations, leading to complacency.
Johnson, who wants to get the country’s economy moving again, is reluctant to reimpose restrictions, including lockdowns.
But Naismith said: “Some immediate mitigation measures (masking, ventilation) would seem desirable. … With winter approaching, it might be worthwhile taking stock of where we are.”
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