Italy becomes fourth country to spot mutated Covid in Brit traveller

Italy becomes fifth country to spot mutated Covid virus after infected British traveller flew to Rome – as Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and Belgium all report cases while France warns variant ‘probably’ spreading there after shutting border with UK

  • In November there were nine instances of strain in Denmark and one in Australia
  • Netherlands and Belgium announced they had detected a case each this month
  • More than a dozen countries have banned travel to and from UK to contain strain

Italy has detected a patient infected with the mutated strain of coronavirus that emerged in Britain, becoming the fifth country outside the UK to report a case.

The Italian patient flew from the UK to Rome in the last few days with his partner, who did not test positive, Italy’s health ministry said. The pair are now isolating.

So far, cases of the new variant, said to be up to 70 per cent more infectious than regular Covid, have been spotted in Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and Belgium.

In November there were nine instances of the strain in Denmark and one in Australia, while the Netherlands announced it had detected a case this month. There have also been unconfirmed reports of at least one case in Belgium.

Scotland and Wales have both picked up cases of the strain in recent weeks, although it is spreading predominantly in London and the South East of England, where it’s thought to account for 60 per cent of all new infections.

France’s health minister said this morning it was ‘entirely possible’ the version of the virus was already circulating in France despite tests not picking it up yet, while Northern Ireland’s First Minister said it was ‘probable’ the strain was there, too.

More than a dozen countries – including  France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Canada – have banned travel to and from the UK as part of an international crackdown to contain the mutant strain. 

European Union leaders are holding a crisis meeting later today to unify the bloc’s response to prevent the variant becoming more widespread on the continent. 

There are now fears Britain’s supermarket shelves could soon stand empty with France’s ban on British lorries set to stop Continental hauliers bringing in vital festive food supplies. 

There are also concerns that the chaos could disrupt supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to the UK which is made in Belgium – with military aircraft set to airlift supplies if the ban lasts for longer than 48 hours.  

Boris Johnson sparked fury on Saturday after he cancelled Christmas for more than 16million people living in London and across the South East just 72 hours before a five-day break from lockdown was supposed to come into force. 

In yet another screeching U-turn, the Prime Minister – who last Wednesday said it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas – also slashed a festive amnesty from five days to just one for the rest of the UK. 

The PM blamed the new strain and claimed it was 70 per cent more virulent – a figure which has been questioned by top experts who say it’s too early to throw out an exact number.

Italy has detected a patient infected with the mutated strain of coronavirus that emerged in Britain, becoming the fifth country outside the UK to report a case after the variant first emerged in Kent in September

Health officials across the UK recorded 35,928 positive cases – a new record figure – and another 326 deaths today

Italy becomes at least the fifth country to report a case of the new variant, named VUI-202012/01, since it first emerged in Britain in September.

The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.

The UK is in ‘chaos’ as Europe ‘shields’ itself from an ‘English strain’ of coronavirus that is spreading ‘out of control’, the world’s media has reported today.

News that Europe has begun cutting itself off from Britain after the discovery of a coronavirus variant that is up to 70 per cent more infectious made headlines around the world on Monday.

European papers described the situation as ‘chaos’, raising fears of food shortages as ferry and air traffic grounds to a halt.

France’s Le Monde newspaper said simply that the new virus strain ‘concludes a disaster year for the United Kingdom’. 

Further afield – in Australia, America, South Africa and New Zealand – headlines worried that the new strain might arrive soon, putting added strain on the crisis.

The chaos erupted at the weekend, as Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas for millions over fears of a ‘new strain’ of virus spreading in England’s south east.

That prompted countries including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Bulgaria to restrict travel with the UK, over fears that incoming travellers would spread the strain.

Then the chaos then deepened as France announced it was closing its borders to freight leaving the Port of Dover, through which a fifth of all UK goods travel each day, for 48 hours – putting food and medical supplies at risk.

‘Chaos looms in isolated United Kingdom: Pressure on freight traffic increases, fears of food shortages’, reported Belgium’s HLN newspaper.

‘Passengers of ferries from the UK are no longer welcome here,’ De Telegraaf, from the Netherlands, reported.

Echoing isolation measures that coronavirus patients have been subjected to, Spain’s El Pais said: ‘Europe shields itself from the United Kingdom for fear of the new strain of the virus’.

One of Germany’s biggest newspapers, Bild, led with the news that travellers from the UK are being held in arrivals at Hanover airport until they test negative for the virus – and are being forced to sleep on cots and the floor in the meantime.

In total, 63 people are being held in the airport with one, Manuela Thomys, complaining that they are being held ‘against our will’.

One passenger called it a ‘scandal’ with others demanding to speak to a lawyer, while similar scenes unfolded in Berlin where 77 people were awaiting test results this morning after arriving from Britain last night. 

In Ireland, papers led with the news that UK travel bans – currently in place for 48 hours – could be extended when ministers meet today.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s Aftonbladet newspaper questioned why the Prime Minister has not already imposed travel restrictions over fears about the virus.

As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities across England, although the true number will be higher.

They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London.

By mid-November, 28 per cent of cases in London were attributable to it. And in the week starting December 9, it was responsible for 62 per cent.

Wales’ health ministers has blamed the new strain for a sharp rise in cases that is sending the country back into a national lockdown on Sunday. Although it’s not clear the exact number of people who’ve tested positive for the variant.

Nicola Sturgeon said at least nine cases have been picked up in Scotland and the First Minister has made it illegal to travel from or to England in a bid to contain the strain.

Nine instances of the strain have also been spotted in Denmark over the last month and the Netherlands said it had found one person carrying the variant so far.  

French health minister Olivier Veran said this morning it was possible the new strain of the virus was circulating in France, although recent tests had not detected it in the country.

‘It is entirely possible that the virus is circulating in France,’ Veran told Europe 1 radio. 

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: ‘It is probable that it is here and likely it is in the Republic too.’

In its report on Saturday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said Belgium had also spotted the strain in one of its citizens.

The ECDC recycled Mr Johnson’s claim that the virus could be ‘up to 70 per cent more transmissible’. 

But last night one scientist demanded greater transparency over the number that shut down swathes of the UK.   

Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care, expressed scepticism over the 70 per cent figure.

He said: ‘I’ve been doing this job for 25 years and I can tell you can’t establish a quantifiable number in such a short time frame.’

He added ‘every expert is saying it’s too early to draw such an inference’.

Professor Heneghan said there was no doubt this time of the year, the ‘height of the viral season’, was a difficult time for the NHS. But he said failure to put out the basis of the figures was undermining public trust. 

He added: ‘I would want to have very clear evidence rather than ‘we think it’s more transmissible’ so we can see if it is or not.

‘It has massive implications, it’s causing fear and panic, but we should not be in this situation when the Government is putting out data that is unquantifiable.’

He added: ‘They are fitting the data to the evidence. They see cases rising and they are looking for evidence to explain it.’

Professor Heneghan said that if it was true the new variant was more transmissible ‘we should be locking down the whole country’ as people leaving the capital to avoid restrictions would spread it.

Cancelling Christmas on Saturday, Mr Johnson also said the new virus could boost the reproduction rate – known as R – by 0.4. When R is above 1 the virus is increasing. If it is below 1, it is decreasing.

Mr Johnson said the figure, which came from analysis by government advisory body The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), was ‘early data’ and ‘subject to review’.

But he added: ‘It’s the best we have at the moment.

‘We have to act on information as we have it because this is spreading very fast.

Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons were ordered to shut again in London and swathes of the South East, with residents told not to leave Tier Four. 

Peter Horby, chairman of Nervtag and Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health at the University of Oxford, said the figure of 70 per cent was based on ‘converging data’.

He said: ‘This is including, but not limited to, the rate of change in the frequency of detection of the variant (the growth rate) and the correlation between R values and the frequency of detection of the new variant.’ 

Minutes from the Nervtag meeting from December 18 said they had ‘moderate confidence’ that the new variant, known as VUI-202012/01, ‘demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants’.

The variant demonstrated exponential growth when national lockdown measures were in place, the minutes added.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?

By David Churchill

What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?

A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.

It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.

What makes it so worrying?

This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.

It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.

Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?

No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.

Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.

On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.

This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.

Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.

But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’

If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.

Are mutations unusual?

No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.

However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.

Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.

There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.

What has caused the mutation?

This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.

Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.

Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.

However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.

What evidence is there to support the latter theory?

Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.

It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.

A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’

Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’

What do these mutations do?

Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.

It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.

Who detected it?

It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.

It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?

As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.

They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.

But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.

The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.

Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?

Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.

Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?

One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.

It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.

Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’

Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.

What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?

The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.

Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’

Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?

More studies are needed.

Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.

She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.

But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.

Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.

So what are the scientists doing now?

Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.

It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete.

 

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