The new UK variant of the coronavirus, estimated to be around 60 per cent more transmissible than previous forms of the virus, has spread across Europe. The true incidence of the variant, known as B.1.1.7, is largely unknown and likely to be significantly higher than figures across the continent suggest, due to lower levels of genomic sequencing in Europe than in the UK.
According to the World Health Organisation, the new variant may come to supplant older mutations over time, as has been observed in the UK and increasingly in Denmark, where it appears the British mutation is most prevalent outside of the British Isles. Some 16 countries in the EU had reported cases of the new variant on 4 January.
Travel bans imposed on the UK before Christmas last year may have succeeded in slowing the spread of the new variant, but it has likely seeded across the EU by now, as scientists believe it to have emerged as early as September, some two months before borders across the world were closed to British travellers.
The new more transmissible variant is causing worry on the continent. The WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, has warned that European countries must do more to limit its spread, including beefing up test-and-trace systems and ensuring social distancing regulations are followed.
But the underlying question of whether measures known to have abated the spread of older versions of the virus will be sufficient to contain the new strain remains unresolved. Data from the UK, where officials admit the tiering system failed to contain the new variant and the government insists that adherence to the latest national lockdown must be pushed up, suggests that restrictions may need to be significantly toughened if it turns out to have spread widely in Europe. Evidence from the UK indicates that 15 per cent of contacts of people infected with the new variant test positive for coronavirus, compared to 11 per cent prior.
Charlotte Houldcroft, a research associate at the University of Cambridge who studies virus evolution, told the New Statesman that with most of Europe under some form of lockdown, it may take some time for the virus to become established outside the UK. “Countries with strict lockdowns will already be breaking chains of transmissions [for all variants of Covid-19]. If we look at the UK’s tier system, quite a lot of things were open under Tier 2 and Tier 3.” Houldcroft added that there is little understanding of why the new variant is more transmissible, but that more should be known within a few weeks, potentially allowing intelligent measures designed to curb its spread to be implemented by governments.
European countries are not waiting. The French government imposed a 6pm curfew on Marseilles after the British variant was discovered in the city, with one woman having apparently imported the mutation from the UK and subsequently 23 of 45 close contacts testing positive for coronavirus. “We are doing everything we can to prevent the variants from entering and spreading across our territory,” French health minister Olivier Véran said, adding that he did not want to see the dire situation in the UK replicated in France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has struck a similar tone, warning that Germany’s current lockdown could last until April “if we don’t manage to stop this British variant”.
Overall, most large European countries are currently not experiencing the same kind of rapid rise in cases seen in the UK since December, which British officials ascribe in part to the uncontrolled spread of the new variant. Italy, France and Germany are currently recording rates of between 200 and 400 new daily confirmed cases per million people, less than half of the UK’s rate of nearly 900.
Only Ireland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are recording higher rates in Europe. Ireland’s rising case rate is especially worrying, going from 250 confirmed cases per million at the beginning of the year to a current rate of over 1,200 – an increase of nearly 400 per cent in under two weeks. Taoiseach Micheal Martin said on 12 January that 45 per cent of Covid tests sequenced tested positive for the new variant, which is a fivefold increase in two weeks, although the WHO’s Mike Ryan has said that the rise in cases in Ireland is due to increased social mixing rather than the new strain.
The stratospheric rise in cases in Ireland could be in part because the country is the only EU member state to share a land border with the UK, meaning there are more opportunities for the British variant to be seeded via people travelling to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Irish emigrants living in the UK who had returned home for Christmas are also feared to have spread the new strain in the Republic.
The reality is that although Europe has a head-start in containing the new variant, aided by travel restrictions imposed late last year, the speed with which it became the dominant form of the virus in the UK has officials worried. They now believe they are locked in a race against time to ramp up vaccination capacity while limiting the spread of the new variant as much as possible. If the variant does begin to spread uncontrollably, the generally slow pace of the EU’s vaccination drive could come to appear an even more unforgivable misstep.
Additional data reporting by Michael Goodier.