The Delta variant is beginning to spread, threatening the EU’s Covid progress

The Delta coronavirus variant that has swept the UK has become dominant in Portugal and has appeared in groups in Germany, France and Spain, encouraging European health officials to warn that more action is needed to slow its spread.

While the new strain, which was born in India for the first time, still contains only a fraction of total coronavirus cases in continental Europe, it is gaining ground, according to a Financial Times analysis of global genomic data from the database. Gisaid virus trace data. It is 96 percent of Covid-19 infections sequenced in Portugal, more than 20 percent in Italy and about 16 percent in Belgium, FT estimates show.

The small but growing number of cases has raised concerns that the Delta variant could halt the progress the EU has made in the past two months by passing on new infections and deaths to its lowest level since at least the autumn.

“We are in the process of crushing the virus and crushing the pandemic, and we must in no way let the Delta variant take over,” French Health Minister Olivier Véran told reporters at a news center on Tuesday vaccination in Paris.

Véran said 2% to 4% of virus samples analyzed in France show the Delta variant: “It can be said that it is still low, but it is similar to the situation in the UK a few weeks ago.” FT analysis of Gisaid data suggests that this figure could be higher.

In Portugal, community-acquired transmission of the variant was detected in the greater Lisbon area, where more than 60 percent of the country’s new coronavirus cases last week were identified. Non-essential trips to and from the city were banned this weekend in an effort to prevent the spike in cases spreading to the rest of the country.

Scientists across the continent are now looking in the UK – where Covid-19 cases have tripled in the past month and the Delta variant accounts for about 98 per cent of all new infections – for clues as to what may happen next. and what measures may need to be taken.

After official data showed that the Delta variant appeared to increase the risk of hospitalization by 2.2 times compared to the Alpha variant, the British government this week imposed a one-month delay for the removal of the remaining coronavirus restrictions.

“The decisions the UK is making to reopen life and society will be a laboratory for us in Europe,” said Bruno Lina, a virologist in Lyon who advises the French government and helps coordinate the sequence of variants in the country.

Whether the Delta infection groups plaguing the European Union are turning into larger outbreaks will depend in part on how many people have been vaccinated in total, scientists say, and on the behavior of people now that many restrictions on life and to the companies have been raised.

Graph showing that there are signs that many states are now seeing a declining focus on the Alpha variant, and a growing Delta

Recent research by the British government has highlighted the need to complete vaccination programs as soon as possible. According to data collected by Public Health England, the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is generally less effective against the Delta variant than with previous strains. Two doses increased protection against symptomatic infection with Delta from 33 percent to 81 percent.

While in the UK about 46 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, vaccination rates in most countries of continental Europe are between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. About 26 percent of the population in France has been completely vaccinated.

French authorities are currently trying to contain a fire in the Landes region, near the Spanish border, where 125 cases of the Delta variant have been confirmed by genetic sequencing and another 130 are suspected, representing about 30 percent of infections. recent in the area. Groups of the Delta variant have also been identified in recent weeks on the southern outskirts of Paris and an art school in Strasbourg.

However health officials have responded with the same formula: increased contact traces and a renewed push to vaccinate people in the affected areas.

“If we keep vaccination at a good pace, and some non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masks at home, we can also suppress the circulation of the virus this summer,” said Lina, the French virologist. “This variant will displace others – we must keep in mind – but it does not mean that it will lead to a new epidemic wave.”

Vaccination site in Jutland, Denmark
Denmark has identified only a small number of Delta infections, although the variant has arrived in the country at about the same time as in the UK © Henning Bagger / EPA-EFE

Some scientists fear that the Delta variant may already be more widespread, but it has been discovered since less of the genomic sequencing needed to identify the variants has been completed in continental Europe. While the United Kingdom has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, Germany, France and Spain have sequenced approximately 130,000, 47,000 and 34,000 respectively.

“It’s costly, takes a lot of time and has been neglected,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.

Denmark, however, has sequenced a high percentage of cases and has still identified only a small number of Delta infections, although the variant has arrived in the country at about the same time as in the UK.

This could be explained in part, experts say, by demographic and movement differences, including the number of cases imported into the country from regions with a high prevalence, such as India, and living conditions in communities. in which it is sown.

The difference in the rate of Delta’s spread in European countries has been “a bit of a mystery,” said Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at Cambridge’s Wellcome Sanger Institute.

However, many experts believe that where the Delta variant is introduced, it will eventually become dominant. The key, they say, will be to increase the proportion of people fully vaccinated, while slowing down the transmission of the virus as much as possible.

“We’re going to keep the messaging very clear,” Lina said in Lyon. “This is not over.”

Additional reports from Daniel Dombey, Peter Wise, Guy Chazan and Clive Cookson

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