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COVID-19: More countries detect UK virus variant

December 21, 2020

Several European countries and Australia have detected the new, faster-spreading variant of COVID-19. In South Africa, authorities believe that a new variant detected there is not the same as the one in the UK.

 A council worker putting out very high threat level COVID poster and hand sanitizer in the high street
The virus mutation was detected in September in KentImage: Grant Falvey/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

A new variant of COVID-19 is sweeping across southern England and has caused alarm in continental Europe, leading to a flurry EU countries to issue travel bans on the UK in an effort to stop the mutation from spreading locally. 

Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the fast-moving new variant of the virus was 70% more transmissible than existing variants and said it likely was the driving force behind a rapid spike in new infections in London and southern England. 

The UK stressed, however, that public health authorities found no evidence that the mutation is more lethal or causes more severe illness — or that vaccines would be less effective against it. 

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Monday that ''timely efforts'' to prevent and control the spread of the new COVID-19 variant were necessary.

But it also noted that infections with the mutations have already been reported in several European countries.

Peter Kremsner, director of Tübingen University Hospital, told DW he does not see a reason to restrict travel to or from Britain.

"Closing borders is not a good idea anyway, especially in the European Union," he said on Monday. "We should work together within our member states and together to combat this pandemic. We can only globally succeed to combat this devastating disease."

European countries confirm cases

The ECDC said a few cases with the new variant have been detected in Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. The agency also cited media reports confirming cases in Belgium and Italy. 

Dr. John Campbell, an independent health analyst based in the UK, told DW that although news about the variant only erupted over the weekend, it was first identified in "late September" in the county of Kent in England.  

"Because it's been around since September, there's also potential, that it already is in European countries," Campbell said. "It does appear to be more infectious in terms of correlation, because the areas where the infection has been increasing most dramatically is also the areas where the highest incidence of this mutation has been picked up." 

'Very high probability' variant in Germany

The head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's disease control authority, said on Tuesday he assumes the new variant has already reached Germany from Britain.

"The probability that it is already in Germany, but not yet recognized, is very, very high," RKI president Lothar Wieler said on Tuesday in Berlin. 

He noted that the likelihood was high based on the cases in neighboring countries as well as the fact that the variant first emerged in September.

Virologists and health authorities in Germany have been more cautious when discussing how contagious the new variant is, saying more data needs to be analyzed.

"We cannot yet clearly assess the significance of the variant for what is happening."

What COVID mutation could mean

Australia detects variant

But it has also been confirmed as far as Australia, which said on Monday it had detected cases of the new fast-spreading UK variant. 

Two travelers from the UK to Australia's New South Wales state are said to have been found carrying the mutated variant. Both individuals have been placed in hotel quarantine. 

Australia has seen cases in Sydney rise in recent days, but authorities don’t believe the rise in infections comes from the newly detected mutation. 

Dozens of domestic flights have been cancelled, as the country is under renewed alarm. 

South African mutation is different

Over the weekend, travel bans were also imposed on South Africa, as it was believed that the UK variant was also found there. 

But South African health officials and scientists leading the country's virus strategy, the new variant, known as 501.V2, was different from the one in the UK. 

Nonetheless, like in Britain, officials have said that the mutation was driving the country's resurgence of the disease, with higher numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

South African scientists on the ground said they are currently studying if the vaccines against COVID-19 will also offer protection against the country's new variant. 

jcg/sms (Reuters, AP, dpa)