Evaluation of the relative virulence of novel SARS-CoV-2 variants

Evaluation of the relative virulence of novel SARS-CoV-2 variants: a retrospective cohort study in Ontario, Canada


Background: Between February and June 2021, the initial wild-type strains of SARS-CoV-2 were supplanted in Ontario, Canada, by new variants of concern (VOCs), first those with the N501Y mutation (i.e., Alpha/B1.1.17, Beta/B.1.351 and Gamma/P.1 variants) and then the Delta/B.1.617 variant. The increased transmissibility of these VOCs has been documented, but knowledge about their virulence is limited. We used Ontario’s COVID-19 case data to evaluate the virulence of these VOCs compared with non-VOC SARS-CoV-2 strains, as measured by risk of hospitalization, intensive care unit (ICU) admission and death.

Methods: We created a retrospective cohort of people in Ontario who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and were screened for VOCs, with dates of test report between Feb. 7 and June 27, 2021. We constructed mixed-effect logistic regression models with hospitalization, ICU admission and death as outcome variables. We adjusted models for age, sex, time, vaccination status, comorbid­ities and pregnancy status. We included health units as random intercepts.

Results: Our cohort included 212 326 people. Compared with non-VOC SARS-CoV-2 strains, the adjusted elevation in risk associated with N501Y-positive variants was 52% (95% confidence interval [CI] 42%–63%) for hospitalization, 89% (95% CI 67%–117%) for ICU admission and 51% (95% CI 30%–78%) for death. Increased risk with the Delta variant was more pronounced at 108% (95% CI 78%–140%) for hospitalization, 235% (95% CI 160%–331%) for ICU admission and 133% (95% CI 54%–231%) for death.

Interpretation: The increasing virulence of SARS-CoV-2 VOCs will lead to a considerably larger, and more deadly, pandemic than would have occurred in the absence of the emergence of VOCs.

CMA Joule Inc. or its licensors. This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY-NCND 4.0) license, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided that the original publication is properly cited, the use is non-commercial (i.e., research or educational use), and no modifications or adaptations are made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

Source: CMAJ