Cough and sore throat more common with UK Covid variant – study

Coughs, sore throats and fatigue are more common in people who test positive for the new variant of coronavirus, but a loss of taste or smell is less likely, a study has found.

The highly transmissible variant of coronavirus that emerged in the UK last year and spread around the world appears to make familiar symptoms of Covid more common.

A survey by the Office for National Statistics found that people reported more coughs, sore throats, fatigue and muscle pain when infected with the new variant than with the older ones that fuelled the first wave.

The shift in symptoms may be driven by the variant being more infectious and spreading faster in the body than older variants, though the full impact of many mutations in the new variant is unknown.

The ONS asked people about their symptoms after receiving a strong positive test for Covid between 15 November and 16 January. The more transmissible variant, named B117, was first detected in Kent in September and has since spread rapidly across the country and around the world.

According to the survey, those infected with the new variant reported more symptoms across the board, though experiencing a loss of taste and loss of smell were less likely than with the older variants. Reports of coughs rose from about 27% to 35% of those infected, with fatigue, muscle pain and sore throat also rising markedly.

Scientists on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded last week that the new variant may increase the Covid death rate by 30% to 40%, although some experts have said it is too early to assess if it is more deadly. The reason for the increased lethality is unclear but may be linked to a mutation called N501Y, which allows the virus to infect cells more easily, making it about 50% to 70% more transmissible.

“Loss of taste and loss of smell were significantly less common in new variant compatible positives” than in older variants, the ONS survey states, “whereas other symptoms were more common in new variant compatible positives”. There was no evidence of differences in gastrointestinal symptoms, shortness of breath or headaches, the survey found.

Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, said 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,” he said.

“This could result in more widespread infection within the body perhaps accounting for more coughs, muscle pain and tiredness. The virus has 23 changes compared with 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.”

But Ian Jones, professor of virology at Reading University, was sceptical about the ONS finding. “The virus will infect the same cells with the same consequences,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if this is a result of self-reporting or if there is some independent measure of the correlation. Scientifically, I just can’t see how it would operate.”


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