World

Speedy variants power Europe virus surge

Speedy variants power Europe virus surge

Fast-spreading mutant variants of coronavirus are powering a fresh surge in infections across Europe, where cases are again increasing.

Europe recorded one million new COVID-19 cases last week, an increase of 9 per cent from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline, the World Health Organisation says.

One hard-hit area is Bollate in Milan in northern Italy. The virus recently swept through a nursery school and primary school there with speed, with 45 children and 14 staff members testing positive in a matter of days.

Genetic analysis confirmed the highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in England was racing through the community.

"This is the demonstration that the virus has a sort of intelligence," lamented Bollate Mayor Francesco Vassallo.

"We can put up all the barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end, it adapts and penetrates them."

Bollate in Lombardy was sealed off from neighbouring regions because of mutant versions that the WHO says are now powering another uptick in infections across Europe.

The variants also include versions first identified in South Africa and Brazil.

"The spread of the variants is driving the increase, but not only," said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, who also cited "the opening of society, when it is not done in a safe and a controlled manner".

The so-called UK variant is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by WHO and is dominant in at least 10 by the agency's count: Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.

It is up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the virus that surged last spring and again in the fall, making it more adept at thwarting measures that were previously effective, WHO experts warned.

"That is why health systems are struggling more now," Dr Kluge said. "It really is at a tipping point. We have to hold the fort and be very vigilant."

In Lombardy, which bore the brunt of Italy's spring surge, intensive care wards are again filling up as more than two-thirds of new positive tests are of the UK variant, health officials said this week.

The situation is dire in the Czech Republic, which registered a record-breaking total of nearly 8500 patients in the hospital with COVID-19 this week.

Poland is opening temporary hospitals and imposing a partial lockdown as the variant has grown from 10 per cent of all infections in February to 25 per cent now.

Dr Kluge cited the UK's experience as cause for optimism, noting that well-considered restrictions and the introduction of the vaccine have helped stop the variants there and in Israel.

The vaccine rollout in the European Union, by comparison, is lagging, mostly because of supply problems.

Still, the UK government will tread cautiously with plans to ease the lockdown. That process begins Monday with the reopening of schools.

While the UK variant is dominant in France, the variant first detected in South Africa has emerged as the most prevalent in the Moselle region, which borders German and Luxembourg.

The South Africa variant is also predominant in a district of Austria that extends from Italy to Germany.

The South Africa variant, now present in 26 European countries, is a source of particular concern because of doubts over whether the current vaccines are fully effective against it.

The Brazilian variant, which appears capable of reinfecting people, has been detected in 15 European countries.

WHO and its partners are working to strengthen the genetic surveillance needed to track variants across the continent.