A coronavirus variant that originated in Spanish farm workers has spread rapidly through much of Europe since the summer, and now accounts for the majority of new Covid-19 cases in several countries — and more than 80 per cent in the UK.
An international team of scientists that has been tracking the virus through its genetic mutations has described the extraordinary spread of the variant, called 20A.EU1, in a research paper.
Their work suggests that people returning from holiday in Spain played a key role in transmitting the virus across Europe, raising questions about whether the second wave that is sweeping the continent could have been reduced by improved screening at airports and other transport hubs. Because each variant has its own genetic signature, it can be traced back to the place it originated.
Tanja Stadler, professor of computational evolution at ETH Zurich who is part of the project, said that analysis of virus samples taken from across Europe in recent weeks showed they were derived from this same variant.
"We can see the virus has been introduced multiple times in several countries and many of these introductions have gone on to spread through the population," Prof Stadler said.
"From the spread of 20A.EU1, it seems clear that the virus prevention measures in place were often not sufficient to stop onward transmission of introduced variants this summer,” an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Basel Emma Hodcroft said.
As we reported earlier, in Norway, the new mutation of SARS-CoV-2 was found; it has never been observed in the country before – it is easier to get infected with it than with the usual form.
According to scientists, the mutated virus is called M439K and belongs to the genetic subgroup of the coronavirus B.1.5. The surface of this protein differs from the common SARS-CoV-2. It has shorter spikes that help the virus to attach to the cell and infect it. The new type of coronavirus can easily bind with the cells in the body.