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COVID variant is likely in most European countries already, says expert

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Goods vans wanting to return to Europe are parked along the seafront whilst the Port of Dover remains closed in southern England
Goods vans wanting to return to Europe are parked along the seafront whilst the Port of Dover remains closed in southern England   -   Copyright  Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo
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An expert in the United Kingdom has said that the new variant of coronavirus is likely already in most if not all European countries.

Neil Ferguson, the Director at MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said that experts picking up ten cases of the variant in a country as small as Denmark with a relatively low infection rate “would suggest ... that this virus has been introduced into the great majority if not all of European countries at the current time."

Ferguson was speaking about the new variant alongside other experts before the UK's Science and Technology Committee.

So far, only a few cases of the new variant, which was first reported in the UK in September, have been recorded internationally.

Cases have been found in Iceland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium, according to the World Health Organization. Outside of Europe, there have been four confirmed cases of the new variant in Australia.

But UK experts say that other countries have lower sequencing capabilities, meaning they may not be as likely to find the new variant in patients.

Ferguson said that although the UK does "disproportionately sequence", experts hypothesise that the variant originated in Kent.

"Epidemiologically, it looks like a point source spreading out from a location, but we cannot completely rule out that it was an importation into that part of the country from elsewhere in the world," said Ferguson.

The comments came after several European countries closed their borders to the United Kingdom in an effort to stop the spread of the variant, which officials say is more transmissible and spreading rapidly in southeastern England and in London.

France has now reopened its border for citizens, residents and those with a "legitimate reason" to travel but only in the event that they test negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of travel.

The European Commission had called on member states to lift full travel bans on the UK.

"Blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes," said Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders after several countries stopped flights coming from the UK.

Amid the travel bans, British supermarkets warned that there could be gaps in stock due to the closures. Sainsbury's warned that salad, cauliflower, broccoli, and citrus fruit could all run out within a week.

Science committee chair Greg Clark, a Conservative MP, asked if the UK was being penalised for its transparency of information on the new variant.

"It is fair to say that countries that have more extensive, more rigorous science and are very open and transparent obviously do expose themselves to important information being made available to others," said Professor Peter Horby, chair of the UK's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).

European colleagues, Horby added, had said they wanted to replicate what is being done in the UK.

The variant was identified by Public Health England following an investigation of unusually rapid transmission in south-east England.

UK health minister Matt Hancock first announced that there was a new variant of coronavirus (a mutated version of the virus) in London and southeast England on December 14 in the House of Commons.

This variant first appeared in September and by November it was responsible for 28% of the COVID-19 cases in London. By the week of December 9, more than 62% of London's COVID-19 cases were from this new variant, officials said.

Scientists say they believe with "high confidence" that this new variant - with its 23 changes - is more transmissible than other variants of coronavirus.

There are now a number of studies underway to determine why that is and whether it could impact treatments or vaccines.