As Europe struggles in its battle with coronavirus, a host of highly contagious mutations of COVID-19 are acting like “a whole new pandemic” across the continent.
Around three per cent have been identified as the South African and Brazilian strains which scientists fear could be more resistant to coronavirus vaccines. The Brazilian strain is also thought to be causing more deaths among 18 to 45-year-olds, according to data coming out of the South American nation.
France entered its third national lockdown – for one month from March 31 – after a resurgence of infections which President Emmanuel Macron attributed to the spread of the UK strain.
Germany has seen an even higher surge in UK variant cases and more than half the cases in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Belgium in the first week of March 8 tested are the same strain.
UK virus variant now dominant strain across Europe
The CoVariants project, which compiles international open-access genomic analysis, says the UK variant has multiplied in the population from 14 per cent of cases at the end of last year.
In France, where the CoVariants data shows more than 60 per cent of infections in early March were the UK strain, daily cases rose last week by 15 per cent.
As hospitals across Europe struggle to cope with new admissions, in Italy, a grim milestone was recorded with 18,000 new daily cases in 24 hours over Easter.
France has shut down non-essential shops and put schools on to remote learning.
In Germany, where 75 per cent of cases were found to be the UK variant, a similar spike in infections has hit the country with daily new cases climbing to more than 17,000.
With calls on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to impose a national lockdown, she has
described the UK variant as “a whole new pandemic”.
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Brazilian and South African variants spreading quickly
But while the UK strain is leading the pack, the Brazilian and South African variants are now spreading more quickly on the continent than in the UK.
Data from early March showed 4.5 per cent of cases in France were the South African variant, and 3.8 per cent of cases in Italy were the Brazilian strain.
In Britain, just 0.2 per cent of cases sequenced in the same week were the South Africa variant and 0.9 per cent were the Brazilian variant.
The spread of the UK strain across Britain late last year has been rampant, with just under 98 per cent of the country’s cases testing positive to it.
The UK Government is analysing the results of all European countries to place them in one of three traffic light categories.
These will determine what restrictions British travellers face on return from a country, when leisure travel resumes possibly on May 17.
With the spread of the contagious variants, it will be a struggle for many countries to make the green light list.
However, the UK is well ahead in its vaccination program, with more than 48 per cent of adults immunised, compared with just 12 per cent in France and Germany.