THE ‘Kent’ Covid variant which has turbo-charged Scotland’s second wave and led to a prolonged lockdown is no more deadly or likely to cause Long Covid than the original strain, according to major new studies.

Researchers found “no evidence” that patients infected with the B117 strain were more likely to develop severe or fatal disease, compared to patients testing positive for other forms of the virus.

It comes amid pressure from the hospitality and tourism bosses for the reopening of pubs and restaurants in Scotland to be accelerated.

In January, Boris Johnson told a Downing Street Covid briefing that in addition to being up to 70 per cent more transmissible there was “some evidence that the new variant...may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.

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He added: “It’s largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure.”

Subsequent research in February, collated from various institutions across the UK including Public Health Scotland, estimated that the risk of death was increased by around 30-70%.

The variant, which was first identified in an immuno-compromised patient in the Kent area last September, has swept the world and is now responsible for around nine in 10 Covid infections in Scotland.

In a paper published today in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers found the that B117 strain was associated with a higher viral load - consistent with evidence that it is more contagious - but cast doubt on claims that it is more lethal.

The authors compared Covid patients admitted to University College London Hospital and North Middlesex University Hospital between November 9 and December 20, 2020.

HeraldScotland:

Of the 341 patients whose swabs were genetically sequenced, 198 tested positive for the ‘Kent’ variant with 143 infected with non-B117 strains.

Of those whose infection was caused by the Kent variant, 36 per cent became severely ill or died compared to 38% of those in the non-Kent group. The incidence of death was 16% for the Kent variant patients and 17% among those with non-B117 strains of the virus.

Patients with the Kent variant tended to be younger but even after adjusting for variables such as age, sex, hospital, ethnicity, and underlying conditions, those with the Kent strain were at no higher risk of severe illness.

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Co-author Dr Eleni Nastouli said: “One of the real strengths of our study is that it ran at the same time that B117 was emerging and spreading throughout London and the south of England.

"Analysing the variant before the peak of hospital admissions and any associated strains on the health service gave us a crucial window of time to gain vital insights into how B117 differs in severity or death in hospitalised patients from the strain of the first wave.”

Crucially, increased transmissibility alone will still translate into an increased death toll because the virus is able to reach more people. This has been partially offset, however, by better Covid treatments in hospital, resulting in improved survival rates.

HeraldScotland: Outdoor hospitality has reopened in England but is not due to restart in Scotland for another two weeksOutdoor hospitality has reopened in England but is not due to restart in Scotland for another two weeks

A separate study, published today in the Lancet Public Health journal, also found no evidence that the Kent variant carries an increased risk of Long Covid - defined as symptoms persisting beyond 28 days without a break of more than seven days.

The analysis was based on self-reported data from nearly 37,000 users of the Covid Symptom Study app who tested positive between 28 September and 27 December 2020.

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Dr Mark Graham, from King’s College London, UK, said: "Reassuringly, our findings suggest that, despite being more easily spread, the variant does not alter the type or duration of symptoms experienced and we believe current vaccines and public health measures are likely to remain effective against it.”

Although Scotland continues to have the highest infection rates in the UK - 40.7 per 100,000 compared to a UK average of 28.7 - hospital admissions have plunged to an average of fewer than 20 per day, down from a peak of 200 per day in January.

HeraldScotland: Updated April 12 (Source: Public Health Scotland)Updated April 12 (Source: Public Health Scotland)

Cases are also falling steadily - down 30% week-on-week - and first dose Covid vaccine coverage is close to 100% among the over-55s.

It comes as hospitality bosses pushed for a faster reopening as customers in England returned to beer gardens and outdoor dining, with venues in Scotland not set to resume until April 26.

Stephen Montgomery, a spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said Scots would "jump the border...for that long awaited pint of cold beer while we still remain closed".

Fiona Campbell, the chief executive of the Association of Scotland's Self Caterers said opening two weeks late represented a £20 million loss to the economy, adding that it was "really difficult" for business owners to see their peers in England re-opening.