New COVID strain may now be in US, Germany

Published December 24, 2020, 9:51 AM

by Bloomberg

The new COVID-19 strain that emerged in the UK is possibly already in the US, Germany, France, and Switzerland, officials in those countries said.

(JANSEN ROMERO / FILE PHOTO / MANILA BULLETIN)

The new strain may already be in the US undetected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No cases of it have yet been identified, the CDC reported, but viruses have been sequenced from only about 51,000 of the 17 million US cases.

Travel between the two countries and the prevalence of the new strain in the UK boost the chance it is already in the US, the CDC reported.

Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, said on Monday that it would take weeks to determine scientifically if the strain is more transmissible but that it didn’t appear to be any more dangerous.

He also said he expects the existing vaccines will likely still offer protection against it.

The new strain is said to be as much as 70 percent more transmissible than previous versions. It now accounts for more than 60 percent of new infections reported in London.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said there was no evidence that this strain of the virus was more lethal.

But faster transmission would mean more cases, which could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.

Prof. Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s New and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag), said preliminary data hinted that the variant could more effectively infect children, though causality had not been established.

Ireland will bring in a raft of new restrictions to control the coronavirus, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said in a national address, citing “extraordinary growth” in the virus there.

Pubs and restaurants will close from Dec. 24 until Jan. 12, while inter-county travel will be effectively banned.

Non-essential stores can remain open, but the government has asked that January sales be postponed. While there is no “firm evidence” that the new strain of the virus is in Ireland, “the most responsible thing is to proceed on the assumption that it is already here,” Martin said.

“We may now be seeing a daily growth rate of approximately 10 percent,” Martin said. That “is simply not sustainable.”

Switzerland received the first 107,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and will start individual shots this month before an official national rollout on Jan. 4.

The country will prioritize people age 75 and up, as well as adults with highest-risk chronic illnesses.

The country analyzes only 1 percent of the about 30,000 cases per week, and hadn’t found the mutated virus strain as of Dec. 10.

However, it’s probable that the variant has already been brought into Switzerland by multiple people on flights from the UK, according to the Swiss COVID-19 science task force.

Denmark’s health authorities said that about 10% the country’s positive test results are now of the N439K mutation of the virus, calling the rate “concerning.”

The mutation, which was first discovered in Romania in May, is different from the one spreading in the UK and also from the one that infected the Danish mink farms earlier this year, authorities said.

Belgium recorded four cases of the mutant coronavirus variant sweeping
Britain at the start of December, health officials told AFP Tuesday.

The four cases were uncovered at the start of the month in the country’s northern Flemish regions that border the Netherlands, said Jan Eyckmans, spokesman for Belgium’s health minister.

A spokesman for the national virus crisis centre said the figure was conservative and that other infections by the strain could have gone undetected as Belgium screens for new mutations far less than Britain does.

”It’s not much, but it is not impossible that there are more,” Yves Van Laethem told AFP. Its discovery has led more than two dozen countries around the world, including Belgium, to suspend travel from the UK out of precaution since the weekend.

But infectious diseases expert Van Laethem warned that the decision to close borders could have come too late.

”Isn’t the enemy already among us? I don’t know, but it’s not impossible,” he said. ”This closure was perhaps already too late since they started finding cases of this English strain in September.”

WHO meeting

The World Health Organization in Europe said Tuesday it would convene its members to discuss how to handle a new variant of the novel coronavirus
discovered in the UK.

Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said on Twitter that the organization was closely monitoring the spread of the new variant and would ”convene member states to discuss strategies for testing, reducing transmission & communicating risks.”

A WHO Europe spokeswoman said the meeting would take place Wednesday at 10 a.m. (0900 GMT).

”This will be a closed, expert meeting, not a planning meeting, and is an opportunity for UK health authorities to provide an update on the situation and take associated questions,” the spokeswoman said.

According to the WHO, there is currently ”no evidence to indicate any change in disease severity.”

UK eyes tighter lockdown

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is examining whether to move more areas of England into lockdown to counter a faster-spreading variant of coronavirus.

Ministers are considering whether to apply the highest Tier 4 restrictions — forcing non-essential shops and leisure facilities to close — to more regions, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Ministers and scientific experts met late Tuesday after cases of the new COVID-19 strain were identified outside London and southeast England, which were placed into Tier 4 last weekend.

France to reopen transport links to UK

France said it will start to reopen critical trade and transportation links with the UK by midnight Tuesday, two days after a temporary suspension triggered chaos at Britain’s busiest port.

Travel from the UK will resume for European Union citizens and residents able to demonstrate negative COVID-19 tests, according to a statement from
Prime Minister Jean Castex.

Other nationals will be allowed to resume essential travel. France shut down freight traffic from Dover on Sunday over concerns the faster-spreading variant of COVID-19 could trigger a surge in cases, just as it did in London and surrounding areas, where the UK government has imposed a strict lockdown.

Fauci vaccinated with Moderna’s shot

Anthony Fauci was among the first employees of the National Institutes of Health to get a COVID-19 vaccine, administered in the same auditorium where he first arrived at the NIH as a fellow 52 years ago.

Fauci, the US government’s top infectious-disease doctor, received Moderna Inc.’s vaccine along with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and NIH Director Francis Collins, and six front-line health care workers at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The public ritual of vaccinating senior health leaders is part of an effort to build confidence in vaccines that were developed in record time and amid political wrangling over the timing of the vaccines’ authorization.

Fauci, who turns 80 on Thursday, noted that he’s getting the vaccine partly because he still sees patients as an attending physician at the NIH Clinical Center, but also to send a message “to the rest of the country that I feel extreme confidence in the safety and the efficacy of this vaccine.”

He flashed a thumbs-up sign after getting the shot in his left arm. (With a report from AFP)

 
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