Sweden, Canada and Spain on Saturday became the latest countries to report cases of the more contagious and genetically distinct variant of the coronavirus that was first discovered in Britain.
The variant has also been detected in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, according to The Washington Post.
The Canadian cases, identified in a couple in southern Ontario with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contact, came as the province went into a lockdown on Saturday, according to Reuters. “This further reinforces the need for Ontarians to stay home as much as possible and continue to follow all public health advice, including the provincewide shutdown measures beginning today,” said Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer Barbara Yaffe.
Swedish authorities detected the new strain after a traveller from Britain fell ill on arrival and tested positive, The Guardian reported, quoting Sweden’s health agency. Sara Byfors, a health agency official, said that the traveller, who was not identified, was kept in isolation after arrival in Sweden and that no further positive cases had been detected as of Saturday.
Sweden had imposed travel restrictions earlier this month on passengers from Britain amid concerns over the new strain.
In Spain, four cases of the coronavirus variant believed to be particularly infectious were confirmed in Madrid, reported AFP. Madrid is also among the places in the world that banned all entries from the United Kingdom except for Spanish nationals and residents.
All four cases involved people who recently arrived from Britain, Madrid regional government’s Deputy Health Chief Antonio Zapatero told a news conference. “The patients are not seriously ill, we know that this strain is more transmissible, but it does not cause more serious illness,” he added. “There is no need for alarm.”
The new variant
More than 50 countries, including India, have imposed travel restrictions on the UK, in an effort to prevent the spread of the new variant. India has suspended flights from the UK till December 31. Some, like France, have imposed total border closures amid widespread disruptions in trade and travel.
The new UK virus variant, which scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01”, includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which could result in coronavirus spreading more easily between people. It was first announced by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, on December 14, and was subsequently confirmed by Public Health England and the UK’s Covid-19 sequencing consortium. Screening back through databases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, the first sample was taken in the county of Kent on September 20.
The variant carries 14 defining mutations including seven in the spike protein, which mediates entry of the virus into human cells. This is a relatively large number of changes compared to the many variants in circulation globally. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that this was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions. But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe coronavirus infections or that it would render vaccines less effective.
The World Health Organization also on Monday tried to allay the concerns and said the strain could be controlled using existing measures.