Coronavirus / Which countries have confirmed cases of new strain of coronavirus?

Zoom News : Dec 22, 2020, 08:09 AM
London: The mutated coronavirus spreading rapidly in the UK will likely become the dominant global strain, a SAGE expert warned today after No10 revealed Gibraltar has become the fifth place outside of Britain to confirm a case of the new variant.

Professor Calum Semple, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Liverpool, claimed the new variant would 'out-compete all the other strains' because it has the evolutionary advantage of being able to spread more easily.

The strain, currently called VUI-202012/01, has already been confirmed in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy. There have also been unverified reports of cases in Belgium.

France and South Africa also believe they may have cases of the mutation, but these have not been confirmed. French health minister Olivier Veran admitted it is 'entirely possible' the new variant is already circulating in France, despite tests not picking it up yet, while officials in South Africa say they've detected a strain very similar to the UK version.

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

It is now present in all parts of the UK apart from Northern Ireland, but First Minister Arlene Foster said it's 'probable' the virus is already circulating there, too. 

When asked on Sky News whether the mutant coronavirus will become the dominant strain around the world, Professor Semple said: 'I suspect it will, or strains like it will.

'Because the virus has the evolutionary advantage in transmitting more quickly, it will out-compete all the other strains, and so it will naturally do that.

'As immunity comes into the community more widely, then you'll start to see more pressure on the virus and you're more likely to see other escapes of other variations.' 

It comes as Government scientists said they believe one of the 23 separate mutations in the new strain can be traced back to Brazil eight months ago in a different strain. 

Studies show that the mutation N501Y, believed to give the variant its heightened infectiousness, was spotted in the South American country in April, before later cropping up in Australia and the US. 

Boris Johnson's spokesman revealed today that the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had identified at least one case of the strain.

Earlier this morning, Italy's health ministry said it had detected a patient infected with the virus. The Italian patient flew from the UK to Rome in the last few days with his partner, who did not test positive. The pair are now isolating. 

Professor Semple said the emergence of the new strain was not a surprise as the UK deals with evolving strains of the flu virus every year, adding: 'The flu vaccine typically contains three or four flavours of the influenza virus and we simply pick on a best-guess basis each season, and then people that make the vaccines scale up in a timely manner.'

He described the UK as a world leader in identifying and understanding how diseases behave. Professor Semple said: 'We shouldn't beat ourselves up about this evolving here.

'The fact is we've identified it, we've brought it to national attention, we've got the attention of the politicians and the World Health Organization in very quick time.'

Professor Semple said it was too early to be sure how a vaccine will behave with the new strain, adding: 'We do not yet have herd immunity despite those people that think herd immunity is going to be the salvation. 'We won't have it until a very large number of people have been vaccinated.'

But a top German virologist today heavily played down fears about Britain's mutant virus strain. 

Christian Drosten said the 70 per cent figure was 'simply called that', suggesting that preliminary scientific estimates might have been overblown by politicians.

'I wonder whether a scientist gave an estimate, perhaps asked what he would say if he had to give a figure, and then it takes on a life of its own. Then it enters politics and politicians use this figure and the media takes it up,' Drosten said.

'Suddenly there's a figure out there, 70 per cent, and nobody even knows what it means,' he told Deutschlandfunk radio.

'The fact that top politicians are reciting scientific content to the media, saying that there's been a mutation and that cases are growing by this and that much here and there, that's unusual.'

Drosten, the director of virology at Berlin's Charite Hospital and an often-quoted expert during the pandemic, also said it was unclear whether the surge in cases in Kent and the South East was really caused by the new strain at all. 

Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 technical lead, revealed on Sunday there had been nine instances of the strain in Denmark, two in and one in the Netherlands

Two cases in Australia were detected in two passengers who landed in New South Wales after flying from the UK, said the state's chief health officer Kerry Chant.

In South Africa, a strain with a similar genetic make up to the one from the UK has been found, but experts are not yet sure if it is the same. 

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.  

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. Many viruses evolve in order to spread more, which can often make them less lethal.