Coughs, sore throats, fatigue and muscle pain are more commonly reported symptoms of the new UK coronavirus variant, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). However, fewer people testing positive for the variant appear to be experiencing a loss of taste or smell.
The analysis looked at swab tests taken between November 15, 2020 and January 16, 2021, when the highest percentage of positive tests associated with the new variant (also called the B.1.1.7 variant) were seen in London and the south east of England.
Where a Covid-19 test is carried out, swabs are tested for three genes present in the coronavirus: N protein, S protein and ORF1ab. According to the ONS, absence of the S-gene in these tests appears to have become a reliable indicator of the new UK variant.
People testing positive were asked about the symptoms they’d experienced. The analysis found that loss of taste and loss of smell were less common in new variant compatible positive tests.
Other symptoms, however, were more commonly associated with this variant, with the largest differences noted for cough, sore throat, fatigue, myalgia (muscle pain) and fever, as well as a small increase in headaches.
There was no evidence of any difference in the prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms (such as sickness and diarrhoea), shortness of breath or abdominal pain, ONS found.
Commenting on the ONS findings, Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, acknowledged that mutations in the UK virus variant could influence the symptoms associated with infection.
“This variant is more transmissible and infected individuals appear to have higher virus loads which means they produce more virus. This could result in more widespread infection within the body perhaps accounting for more coughs, muscle pain and tiredness,” he said.
“The virus has 23 changes compared to the original Wuhan virus. Some of these changes in different parts of the virus could affect the body’s immune response and also influence the range of symptoms associated with infection.”
Professor Richard Tedder, a senior research investigator in medical virology at Imperial College London, suggested a change in symptoms, especially those of upper respiratory tract infection, i.e. coughs and colds, might also be the reason for the variant’s increased transmissibility.
“For example, if there is an increased amount of coughing and perhaps sneezing associated with a particular variant virus, these two activities can markedly increase the amount of virus which is shed into the environment, thereby making it ‘more infectious’,” he explained.
Even small changes in symptoms could influence a large change in the ease with which a virus can be transmitted between people, Prof Tedder added.
“Either way the most important feature is to remain distant from other people and wear facial covering able to reduce shedding of sneeze- and cough-generated droplets when outside the home. The old saying ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ is as appropriate now as it was many decades ago.”
While the ONS results are interesting, a separate study suggests there are no significant differences in symptoms caused by the UK variant.
Researchers led by Professor Sebastien Ourselin and Dr Claire Steves from King’s College London (KCL) analysed 65 million health reports submitted to the Covid Symptom Study app by 1.76 million users between September and December 2020.
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 key symptoms of Covid-19, the total number of symptoms reported by each individual and whether symptoms lasted 28 days or more. They then cross-matched this information against the estimated prevalence of the new variant in Scotland, Wales and England.
Analysis showed there were “no significant differences” in the type, number or duration of symptoms between areas with a high prevalence of the UK strain compared with those with a lower prevalence – and that this did not change as the new variant spread.
People are advised to have a test for Covid-19 if they present with one (or more) of three symptoms: a fever, new and continuous cough, or loss of sense of smell or taste.
In September 2020, the five most common symptoms of Covid-19 reported to the UK’s Covid Symptom Study app were headache, fatigue, loss of smell, fever and a persistent cough. Lead researcher Professor Tim Spector, from King’s College London, told HuffPost UK at the time that the symptoms hadn’t significantly changed since the start of the pandemic.
The app confirmed to HuffPost UK that fatigue, headache, loss of smell, and persistent cough and sore throat are currently the most dominant symptoms of the virus.