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Most Common Symptoms of the U.K. Coronavirus Variant

Cough, tiredness, muscle aches more prevalent, but loss of ability to taste or smell less likely

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Natalie Board / EyeEm / Getty Images

Victims of a new, fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom are reporting more symptoms across the board than those infected with the original strain of the virus, new research shows.

A survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics in England found that those who test positive for the variant are more likely to report a persistent cough, tiredness, muscle aches, sore throat and fever compared to those who have the original strain.

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Interestingly, patients infected with the variant were significantly less likely to report a loss of the sense of taste or smell, among the more unusual symptoms of the coronavirus.

Tony Moody, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute at Duke University Medical Center, said it's not surprising that a new variant would cause somewhat different symptoms.

"Variants have changes in their genetic code that will result in proteins being built differently, and those can change how the virus interacts with the body,” he said.

He noted, however, that the differences found in the British survey are quite subtle — no new symptoms were reported by patients with the variant — and it's too early to know if they indicate anything significant.

"If suddenly a new symptom emerged or another one went away, then that would be perhaps something more concerning,” he said.

Most common variant symptoms

The U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, was first detected in September and has since spread rapidly around the world. It is circulating in at least 28 U.S. states.

Studies show it is 40 to 70 percent more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain. It could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

Preliminary studies suggest the current COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against the B.1.1.7 strain.

It's unclear if the B.1.1.7 causes more severe disease. A U.K. report released Jan. 21 states there is “a realistic possibility” that it's associated with a higher death rate in infected patients, although more data is needed to know for sure.

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The Office for National Statistics surveyed people who received a strong positive COVID-19 test between Nov. 15 and Jan. 16. Those with the variant and those with the original strain answered questions about the symptoms they experienced in the seven days before the test.

Cough was the most common symptom in those infected with the new variant, reported by 35 percent. The other common symptoms were: fatigue/weakness (32 percent), headache (32 percent), muscle aches (25 percent), sore throat (22 percent) and fever (22 percent).

Only about 15 percent with the new variant reported a loss of taste or smell, compared to 19 percent of those infected with the original coronavirus.

Coronavirus Symptom Checker: Variant vs. Original

Top symptoms reported by patients in United Kingdom

Symptom  Variant  Original strain
Cough  35% 28%
Fatigue/weakness  32% 29%
Headache* 32% 30%
Muscle aches  25% 21%
Sore throat   22% 19%
Fever 22% 20%
Loss of taste 16% 19%
Loss of smell 15% 19%

*Difference between variant and original strain is within the margin of error.

Source: U.K.’s Office for National Statistics (ONS)

Other fast-spreading strains

Viruses mutate, so it's not surprising that the coronavirus is changing, the CDC said. A few specific variants have attracted the attention of scientists because they spread more quickly and therefore have the potential to become dominant.

In addition to the U.K. variant, scientists are tracking strains discovered in South Africa and Brazil, according to the CDC.

The one identified in South Africa, known as B.1.351, was found in the U.S. for the first time on Jan. 28, when health officials announced two cases in South Carolina. The patients had no history of travel or of contact with each other, which suggests it is already spreading in the community.

The South African variant contains a mutation that could allow the virus to elude some of the antibodies produced through vaccines, the CDC said. Early studies indicate that the current COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against that strain, although they would still provide some protection.

Vaccine makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have already announced that they are working to modify their vaccines — and possibly to create booster shots — to better protect against the South African variant.

The strain first identified in Brazil has been found in only one U.S. case — in Minnesota — and that person had recently traveled to Brazil, health officials said. There is some evidence to suggest that it, too, may be able to elude antibodies.

Vaccine rollout is key to stopping mutations

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a press briefing that getting the COVID-19 vaccines out quickly is important to reduce the spread of the variants while they are still somewhat rare.

The longer the virus is allowed to propagate, the more mutations will develop.

"Getting people vaccinated as quickly and as efficiently as you possibly can will always be the best way to prevent the further evolution of any mutant,” Fauci said. “When you do that, you prevent replication, and replication is essential for mutation.”

Besides getting the vaccine, the best way to protect yourself against the new variants is to continue to follow the same precautions that protect against the original coronavirus strain: Wear a mask (consider doubling up), wash your hands, practice social distancing, avoid crowds and stay home if you can.

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