Over one in fifty people in London had the CCP virus last week as the new variant became predominant in the surrounding corner of southeast England, according to the latest official national large-scale swab survey.
According to the data, 645,800 people in England had the virus—around 1 in 85 people.
"Over the most recent week, the percentage of people testing positive has continued to increase sharply in London, the East of England, and the South East," said the ONS release. "London now has the highest percentage of people testing positive."
In England, infection rates are falling, or flat in all other areas—areas that do not have high levels of the new variant. In Wales, however, where the new strain is lower in level than the rest of the country, the infection rate is still rising.
In London, over two percent of people had the virus over the week ending 18 December, according to the ONS.
The nationwide government-sanctioned survey provides a slightly delayed snapshot of the number of infections nationwide per week by using swab samples collected from a pool of volunteers to establish levels of infections from different regions—and then scales up with some modeling. The latest figures were for the week Dec. 12–18.
Analysis of the swabs at the University of Oxford suggests that the new strain of the virus—thought by one preliminary study to be 50–74 percent more transmissible—now makes up over six out of ten cases in London and the southeast.
The analysis used the presence of two genetic markers, and the absence of a third to identify the new strain.
"Swabs are tested for three genes present in the coronavirus: N protein, S protein, and ORF1ab.," according to ONS. "Each swab can have any one, any two, or all three genes detected. Positives are those where one or more of these genes is detected in the swab other than tests that are only positive on the S-gene, which is not considered a reliable indicator of the virus if found on its own."
That's for regular testing of the previous strain. The new variant of COVID-19 has genetic changes in the S-gene, which means it is no longer picked up in the genetic marker test. So to identify the new strain, they used the presence of other two markers and absence of the S-gene marker.
ONS warned that the results are not a precise indication of the levels of the new strain.
"There are also other reasons why a swab may be positive for only these two genes, including lower viral load in the sample, which is why we have always seen a small percentage of this type of positive result."
Thus, they said, rates of the new strain may be lower than indicated in some regions with lower levels, such as Wales.
Scientists currently believe that vaccines will still protect against the new strain, which is not thought to be more deadly or to cause more hospitalisations.
The CCP virus death rate in the UK currently stands at just over 500 per day (seven-day average). The peak in April was over 900 per day.
"Of the deaths registered in Week 50, 2,756 mentioned 'novel coronavirus (COVID-19),' accounting for 22.4 percent of all deaths in England and Wales," said that ONS release.
That is a slight decrease (76) from the previous week.
That overall figure, however, provides a delayed weekly snapshot from death certificates. Deaths from the CCP virus are thought to lag behind infections by several weeks.
Comparing deaths involving the CCP virus versus deaths stated as with influenza and pneumonia on the death certificate, the numbers are currently at a similar level. However, when looking at the figures for "deaths due to the disease" that picture changes dramatically.
Of those deaths recorded as involving the CCP virus, around 90 percent are marked as being due to the disease. In cases with influenza and pneumonia mentioned on the death certificate that is reversed, with only around 10 percent recorded as dying due to the disease.