A mutated coronavirus strain causes most new COVID-19 infections in Europe and was spread within the continent by tourists, scientists say
Tourists and residents arriving at Pablo Ruiz Picasso Airport in Malaga, Spain on June 22nd after the opening of the borders. Europa Press News / Europa Press via Getty Images
Most of the new COVID-19 cases in Europe come from a mutated variant of the coronavirus spread by tourists from Spain, scientists said in a report on Thursday.
The coronavirus variant was first identified in northeastern Spain in June and taken overseas by tourists and other travelers, the scientists said.
There isn't enough data to suggest that this variant known as 20A.EU1 is more deadly, according to the team from the University of Basel, ETH Zurich in Basel and SeqCOVID in Spain.
The variant has been identified in 12 countries across the continent, as well as Hong Kong and New Zealand.
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The majority of new COVID-19 cases in Europe come from a mutant strain of the coronavirus that has been traced back to Spain and spread by tourists across the continent in the summer, scientists said in a report on Thursday.
The variant most likely came from farm workers in northeastern Spain, where it was first recorded in June.
The team of scientists from the University of Basel, ETH Zurich in Basel and SeqCOVID in Spain said a suspected "superspreader" event explained the early spread of the virus, which was then spread abroad by tourists and other travelers.
By October, the variant had been identified in 12 countries on the continent as well as in Hong Kong and New Zealand.
There's no data yet to suggest this variant is more deadly, they said.
The variant of SARS-CoV-2 known as 20A.EU1 had spread in at least six European countries by the end of July.
Hundreds of variants of the virus are present in Europe, but few are as widespread as the 20A.EU1 cluster, the scientists said.
"This variant 20A.EU1 and a second variant 20A.EU2 ... make up the majority of the most recent sequences in Europe," said the scientists.
Read More: Airline CEOs Say It Doesn't Matter How Well They Protect Passengers From COVID-19 - Demand For Travel Will Only Recover After The Pandemic Ends
Vacationers returning from Spain played an important role in spreading the virus across Europe, the researchers said.
More than four out of five new cases of the virus in the UK are due to this variant, and scientists have linked this to around 250 individual transmissions of the virus to the country in July and August.
In comparison, analysis of viral sequences in Hong Kong suggests that infections there came from only one source and the New Zealand samples could have come from only three separate transmissions from Europe.
The variant is mostly found in Europe due to a lack of intercontinental travel during the pandemic, the scientists said. The authorities allowed quarantine-free travel within the continent for parts of the summer.
The rise in the prevalence of 20A.EU1 across Europe "implies that summer travel policies and restrictions are generally insufficient to prevent introductions from being passed on," the scientists said.
The variant could be more contagious than the usual SARS-CoV-2 strain, the team added, but it was "particularly difficult" to finally determine why the variant was spreading so quickly.
The scientists don't know if the variant is more severe due to a lack of data, they added. Genomic surveillance allows them to identify and track this cluster, but "the lack of consistent and unified sequencing across Europe has still limited our efforts."
Governments should consider the data when planning a return to Europe, the researchers added.
The report comes after France and Germany announced stricter lockdown restrictions on Wednesday.
The countries will face a one-month lock-up period during which bars and restaurants will have to close again. In France, shops that are not absolutely necessary are not allowed to remain open, while in Germany hotels cannot accept tourists and gyms and theaters have to be closed.
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