Speedy variants power virus surge sweeping Europe

MILAN (AP) - The virus has spread at a surprising rate through a kindergarten and an adjoining elementary school in the Milanese suburb of Bollate. Within a few days, 45 children and 14 employees had tested positive.
The genetic analysis confirmed what the officials had already suspected: The highly contagious coronavirus variant, identified for the first time in England, raced through the community, a densely packed city with almost 40,000 inhabitants, a chemical factory and a Pirelli bicycle tire factory, a 15-minute drive from the heart Milan's away.
“This is proof that the virus has some kind of intelligence, even if it is a unicellular organism. We can all erect barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end it adapts and penetrates them, "lamented Bollate Mayor Francesco Vassallo.
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Bollate was the first city in Lombardy, the northern region that was the epicenter in each of Italy's three waves. It was sealed off from the neighbors because, according to the World Health Organization, mutant versions are now causing a further increase in infections across Europe. The variants also include versions that were first identified in South Africa and Brazil.
Europe recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases last week, a 9% increase from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline, the WHO said Thursday.
"The spread of the variants is driving the increase, but not only," said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, citing "also opening up society if this is not done in a safe and controlled manner." ”
The so-called British variant is spreading considerably in 27 European countries monitored by the WHO and, according to the agency, dominates in at least 10 countries: Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.
It's up to 50% more transmissible than the virus, which rose last spring and again in the fall, making it more adept at thwarting previously effective measures, WHO experts warned.
"That's why the health systems are fighting more now," said Kluge. “It's really at a turning point. We have to hold the fort and be very vigilant. "
In Lombardy, which bore the brunt of the Italian spring surge, intensive care units are refilling as more than two-thirds of new positive tests are from the UK variant, health officials said this week.
After two provinces and around 50 cities were subjected to a modified lockdown, the regional governor of Lombardy announced stricter restrictions on Friday and closed classrooms for all ages. Cases in Milan schools alone rose 33% in a week, said the provincial health system director.
The situation is dire in the Czech Republic, which saw nearly 8,500 hospitalized patients at record levels this week with COVID-19. Poland is opening makeshift hospitals and imposing a partial lockdown as the variant increased from 10% of all infections to 25% in February.
Kluge cited the UK's experience as a source of optimism, noting that thoughtful restrictions and the introduction of the vaccine helped contain the variants there and in Israel. In comparison, the introduction of vaccines is lagging behind in the European Union, mainly due to supply problems.
In the UK, the emergence of the more transmissible burden drove cases skyrocketing in December and sparked a national lockdown in January. Since then, cases have dropped from around 60,000 a day at the peak in early January to around 7,000 a day.
However, one study shows the rate of decline is slowing, and the government says it will be cautious with plans to ease the lockdown. This process begins on Monday with the reopening of the schools. Infection rates are highest among people ages 13-17, and officials will be watching closely to see if returning to class leads to an increase in infections.
While the British variant dominates in France and forces closures in the French Riviera city of Nice and in the northern port of Dunkirk, the variant first discovered in South Africa has proven to be the most widespread variant in the Moselle region, which borders Germany and Luxembourg. It represents 55% of the virus circulating there.
The South African variant is also predominant in a district of Austria that stretches from Italy to Germany. Austrian officials announce plans to vaccinate most of the 84,000 residents to curb their spread. Austria also demands negative test results from motorists along the Brenner Pass, an important north-south truck route.
The South African variant, which is now represented in 26 European countries, is of particular concern as there are doubts as to whether the current vaccines are fully effective against them. The Brazilian variant, which appears to be able to re-infect people, has been discovered in 15 European countries.
WHO and its partners are working to increase the genetic surveillance needed to track variants across the continent.
The mayor of Bollate has urged the regional governor to vaccinate all 40,000 residents immediately, despite expecting to be told that supplies are currently too short.
Bollate has recorded 3,000 positive cases and 134 deaths - mostly among the elderly - since it hit Italy a year ago. It was the brunt of November and December, in the fall, and was caught completely off guard when the variant arrived and raced through school-age children before hitting families back home.
"People are getting tired that after a year there is no more light at the end of the tunnel," said Vassallo.
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The AP correspondents Jill Lawless in London, Karel Janicek in Prague, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this.
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