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Where the delta variant is spreading in Europe

June 30, 2021

Some European countries are experiencing a rougher start to summer than others. Portugal and Britain are grappling with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Woman wearing face mask walks by a large ornate building
The alpha variant hit Lisbon hard last winter— now it is the delta variantImage: Pedro Fiuza/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Some countries in Europe are already struggling with the rapidly spreading delta variant of the coronavirus. Others are not — yet. In those latter countries, many people are enjoying a well-deserved respite from the pandemic, while virologists, politicians and various others involved with fighting the disease are already pondering new protective measures.


The delta variant began spreading widely in England months ago and can now be found across the United Kingdom. Despite remarkable vaccination rates — by June 27, nearly two-thirds of the population had received at least one shot and 48% were fully vaccinated — the highly contagious variant has driven a rise in infections. As of June 30, the seven-day incidence in the United Kingdom, according to the website OSCOVIDA, was 182, a considerable jump from the previous week. The number of deaths and hospitalized patients is on the rise.

The United Kingdom has always done a lot of PCR sequencing, which means that labs examine the genetic material of the detected viruses in detail. According to a report published on June 25, the delta variant accounted for about 95% of sequenced cases from June 7 to June 23. It is still unclear whether the delta variant, which is considered to be even more infectious than the alpha variant, is also responsible for more severe courses of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government, however, is trying to avoid postponing further relaxations scheduled for July 19 — a decision that might have formed under pressure from UEFA to play the Euro 2020 semifinals and finals at London's Wembley Stadium, where plans to admit an in-person audience of up to 60,000 has met with international criticism. Researchers and virologists are urgently warning foreign fans not to travel to attend. Mandatory quarantines of five to 10 days could, however, thwart soccer travelers.

On Monday, Spain, a favorite summer holiday destination for British tourists, imposed mandatory PCR testing for travelers from the UK who have not been fully vaccinated.


In mid-May, Portugal was the first EU country to welcome back British tourists. On Sunday, the government changed tack, requiring people arriving from the UK who cannot prove full vaccination to quarantine. It remains to be seen whether the tightened rules will do much good at this point, however, as the delta variant is already responsible for one in two new infections in Portugal and up to 70% in the greater Lisbon area, according to the DGS health authority. To slow the spread, the government has largely stopped domestic travel on weekends; only in exceptions can people leave the Lisbon metropolitan area. Some stores and restaurants in the capital also have shorter opening hours.

Several people wearing face masks stand by a balustrade, view of Old Town Lisbon
Travel to and from the Lisbon metropolitan area is limited over the weekendImage: Armando Franca/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Like the alpha variant did in winter, the delta variant has hit Portugal with full force: The seven-day incidence on June 30 was 101.7, the third-highest in Europe after the UK, Cyprus and Georgia.


Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday in view of a worsening situation over the past few days. The seven-day incidence within the country had risen to 132.4 on June 30 — up from 76 on June 20. According to the Health Ministry, one out of three new infections affects people aged 16 to 18. Provided parental consent, 16- and 17-year-olds can now be vaccinated with BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines.


While vaccination rates in the countries mentioned so far exceed 50%, the delta variant challenges a society in the very east of Europe that isn't close to those immunization figures— Russia, where only about 15% of the population have received at least one shot so far. The delta variant is particularly rampant in the Moscow and St. Petersburg metropolitan areas, with infection and death rates higher than at any time since the pandemic began: 124 deaths were announced in the capital on Monday, and St. Petersburg listed 110. The Russia-wide incidence figure was reported by OSCOVIDA as 96.                                                                                                                                                                                                          Despite the worsening situation, the European Football Championship first quarterfinal is on in St. Petersburg on Friday as planned, with about 26,000 fans expected to attend. The infection situation "makes no difference" to the teams, a UEFA spokesman said, according to AFP. Since the start of the tournament, local authorities claim they are taking all necessary precautions, but all the same numerous COVID-19 cases were reported in nearby Finland, apparently in connection with travel to the soccer matches.

Ambulance in a city
More people are dying from COVID-19 in Moscow now than in December 2020Image: Alexander zemlianichenko/AP/picture alliance

Russia relies on Sputnik V, which was presented in August 2020, and two other coronavirus vaccines, EpiVacCorona and CoviVac. The population seems to be wary of the Russian vaccines: according to a survey by the Levada Analytical Center in March, 62% of the people interviewed rejected the domestic vaccines, often because of expected side effects including fever and exhaustion. Meanwhile, some cities have introduced mandatory vaccination for individual professions, including for cab drivers, teachers and sales clerks in Moscow. In addition, "COVID-free" bars, which only serve guests who can prove they have their shots, are supposed to entice people to get vaccinated. According to media reports, the trade in fake certificates is flourishing: The Washington Post reported that fake certificates go for the equivalent of $25 (€21).


In Germany, the delta variant accounted for about 15% of new infections last Wednesday. Since then, that figure may have doubled. Germany's overall infection figures are declining, with an incidence of 5.2 on June 30. However, it is unclear whether such low figures can be maintained if the percentage of delta variant infections rises.

Two soccer fans, one wears face mask, one an owl mask, holds up a blue-and-white soccer scarf
Despite wearing a protective or fun face mask, some soccer fans in St.Petersburg still got the virusImage: Peter Kovalev/TASS/picture alliance

The list of virus variant and high incidence areas that warrant extended proof or even quarantine upon entry has been expanded —Portugal and Russia are now classified as virus variant areas. At present, the German government does not intend to introduce new border controls; special controls are to be set up instead of the usual random checks upon entry for flights from Portugal.

It's conceivable infection numbers will remain low despite delta in the summer, but the variant could also lead to a more rapid increase in infection activity, Christian Drosten, a German virologist, said in a public-radio podcast last week. "We just need to vaccinate quickly," he said. The booster jab plays a larger role in achieving full vaccine protection against the delta variant. So far, data from BioNTech and AstraZeneca suggest that the vaccines are about as effective against delta as they were against the Sars-CoV-2 variants prevalent so far.