COVID-19 variants from the UK, Brazil and South Africa infecting greater numbers of young people

These side-by-side comparison X-rays show the lungs of a healthy person on the left, and those of a person with COVID in their 30s, experiencing significant fluid build-up.
A feature of coronavirus that emerged early in the pandemic was its tendency to inflict serious illness and death on predominantly elderly people or those with pre-existing health conditions.

Young and otherwise healthy people were left largely unscathed, with many experiencing such minor symptoms – or none altogether – that they didn’t even realise they were infected.

But the emergence of new mutations of COVID-19, dubbed ‘variants of concern’ by epidemiologists, has changed all of that.

Dodging sickness and even death are no longer are safe bet for young people, as countless examples internationally have shown.

‘Hitting harder and faster than before’

Canada is currently in the midst of a devastating third wave of infections, sparked overwhelmingly by the spread of the highly infectious B117 variant, known as the UK strain.

Public health officials say it has now likely replaced the original COVID-19 virus in large parts of the country, and its dominance has seen a shift in who is likely to fall ill.

They say the new onslaught is hitting young Canadians particularly hard, with doctors shocked by how many are winding up in hospitals – and intensive care units.

Dr Kashif Pirzada, an emergency doctor in the Canadian city of Toronto, told CTV that the people “filling the ICU” at his hospital “are all in their 30s, 40s and 50s”.

“It’s infecting younger people harder and faster than before,” Dr Pirzada said. “The variants have changed things completely.”

Michigan is battling an outbreak of two COVID-19 variants – predominantly the UK strain, but also a mutation known as B1351, which originated in South Africa.

Across the state, the number of daily hospital admissions for younger patients with COVID has exploded due to the rapid spread of the new variants.

A third mutation that also appears to impact younger people is the P1 variant, or the Brazilian strain, which is also highly infectious.

Epidemiologists in the hard-hit South American nation fear it could be three times deadlier in infected people aged up to 45.

In the first few months of the pandemic, the average age of infected patients in Brazilian hospitals was between 60 and 65.

Now, it’s estimated to be sitting at about 37.

A terrifying perfect storm

Epidemiologists are still examining the three new variants of concern, as well as keeping a close eye on other mutations to determine if they too pose a threat.

But for the three causing worry right know, experts know this:

1. They are significantly more infectious – in the case of the UK strain, up to 70 per cent more

2. Illness caused is likely to be more severe and last longer

3. The risk of requiring hospitalisation – as well as acute care – is much higher. So too is the risk of death

4. Young and otherwise healthy people are falling ill in large numbers.

The rapid spread of new variants is forcing governments to consider new infection control measures, from venue closures and non-essential gathering caps to shutting down cities once more.

Paris has just entered a new period of lockdown in a bid to quash its new wave of infections, as hospitals reach capacity, while the Canadian province of Ontario has also locked down.

In hard-hit US states, authorities are either trying to convince their citizens to don masks and adhere to social distancing or rejecting pleas from health officials to enact stricter measures.

In many parts of the Western world, age groups least likely to follow COVID-19 restrictions, such as limiting non-essential gatherings, were young people.

That’s despite the European country being in the midst of a devastating new wave of infections, predominantly in the form of the UK strain.

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