Estimated transmissibility and impact of SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7 in England

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Abstract

INTRODUCTION
Several novel variants of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, emerged in late 2020. One of these, Variant of Concern (VOC) 202012/01 (lineage B.1.1.7), was first detected in southeast England in September 2020 and spread to become the dominant lineage in the United Kingdom in just a few months. B.1.1.7 has since spread to at least 114 countries worldwide.
RATIONALE
The rapid spread of VOC 202012/01 suggests that it transmits more efficiently from person to person than preexisting variants of SARS-CoV-2. This could lead to global surges in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, so there is an urgent need to estimate how much more quickly VOC 202012/01 spreads, whether it is associated with greater or lesser severity of disease, and what control measures might be effective in mitigating its impact. We used social contact and mobility data, as well as demographic indicators linked to SARS-CoV-2 community testing data in England, to assess whether the spread of the new variant may be an artifact of higher baseline transmission rates in certain geographical areas or among specific demographic subpopulations. We then used a series of complementary statistical analyses and mathematical models to estimate the transmissibility of VOC 202012/01 across multiple datasets from the UK, Denmark, Switzerland, and the United States. Finally, we extended a mathematical model that has been extensively used to forecast COVID-19 dynamics in the UK to consider two competing SARS-CoV-2 lineages: VOC 202012/01 and preexisting variants. By fitting this model to a variety of data sources on infections, hospitalizations, and deaths across seven regions of England, we assessed different hypotheses for why the new variant appears to be spreading more quickly, estimated the severity of disease associated with the new variant, and evaluated control measures including vaccination and nonpharmaceutical interventions. Combining multiple lines of evidence allowed us to draw robust inferences.
RESULTS
The rapid spread of VOC 202012/01 is not an artifact of geographical differences in contact behavior and does not substantially differ by age, sex, or socioeconomic stratum. We estimate that the new variant has a 43 to 90% higher reproduction number (range of 95% credible intervals, 38 to 130%) than preexisting variants. Similar increases are observed in Denmark, Switzerland, and the United States. The most parsimonious explanation for this increase in the reproduction number is that people infected with VOC 202012/01 are more infectious than people infected with a preexisting variant, although there is also reasonable support for a longer infectious period and multiple mechanisms may be operating. Our estimates of severity are uncertain and are consistent with anything from a moderate decrease to a moderate increase in severity (e.g., 32% lower to 20% higher odds of death given infection). Nonetheless, our mathematical model, fitted to data up to 24 December 2020, predicted a large surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in 2021, which has been borne out so far by the observed burden in England up to the end of March 2021. In the absence of stringent nonpharmaceutical interventions and an accelerated vaccine rollout, COVID-19 deaths in the first 6 months of 2021 were projected to exceed those in 2020 in England.
CONCLUSION
More than 98% of positive SARS-CoV-2 infections in England are now due to VOC 202012/01, and the spread of this new variant has led to a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Other countries should prepare for potentially similar outcomes
Original languageEnglish
JournalScience
Volume372
Issue number6538
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 9 Apr 2021

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