Genetic changes in viruses are nothing new but SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – has devastated the world and its mutations threaten to outsmart the vaccines deployed to stop it. A new analysis on data gathered from the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app should assuage many of the fears about the new mutations.
The latest analysis of symptom data gathered from the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app shows no significant differences in COVID-19 symptom type, severity, or duration of the disease caused by the new B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant.
The B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant is the mutation that was first discovered in Kent.
First identified in September 2020, the B.1.1.7 variant has spread rapidly through the UK and elsewhere.
While the findings are reassuring, Claire Steves, reader and joint senior author underlined the importance of responding to the range of possible symptoms.
Steves highlighted five symptoms of the virus that are common in both the old and new variants.
She said: “It’s important to emphasise the range of symptoms both the new and the old variant can cause, such as headaches and sore throat, in addition to the classic triad of cough, fever and loss of smell.”
How did Steves and her team compare the characteristics of the old and new variant?
To find out whether the new Kent version of the virus is affecting the COVID-19 symptoms that people experience, researchers led by Sebastien Ourselin and Claire Steves from King’s College London analysed more than 65 million health reports submitted to the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app by 1.76 million users between 28th September and 27th December 2020.
This is the period when the new variant was spreading through the population, mainly in London, South East England and the East of England.
Nearly half a million users reported having had a coronavirus swab test during this time, with 55,192 reporting a positive result.
The researchers looked at how many people reported experiencing any of the 14 key symptoms of COVID-19, the total number of symptoms reported by each individual (an indicator of the severity of their illness) and whether symptoms lasted 28 days or more.
They also counted self-reported hospitalisations and likely cases of reinfection, where someone reports two positive COVID-19 tests separated by at least 90 days.
They then cross-matched this information against the estimated prevalence of the new variant in Scotland, Wales and seven English NHS regions based on data from the COG-UK genomic surveillance programme and the Public Health England testing service.
After adjusting the data to account for age and sex, as well as local temperature and humidity, analysis showed that there were no significant differences in the type, number or duration of symptoms between areas with a high prevalence of B.1.1.7 compared with those with a lower prevalence and that this did not change as the new variant spread.
There was also no difference in the proportion of reported hospitalisations and reinfections.
The researchers identified 249 likely cases of reinfection during the study period, representing a reinfection rate of 0.7 percent which is comparable with previous studies of earlier virus variants.
“This is a positive sign that the immunity built through vaccination against the older variants could also be protective against B.1.1.7,” the researchers said.
Finally, the researchers confirmed that the new variant is more easily transmitted than existing virus versions, increasing the R value (a measure of transmissibility) by around a third (35 percent).
How to respond to symptoms
If you have any of the main symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), get a test as soon as possible. Stay at home until you get the result.
You and anyone you live with should stay at home and not have visitors until you get your test result – only leave your home to have a test.
Anyone in your support bubble should also stay at home if you have been in close contact with them since your symptoms started or during the 48 hours before they started.