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European lockdowns spark fears of ‘new Covid variant’ fuelling surge in cases

EUROPE is ramping up investigations into new Covid variants as cases surge.

It comes after numerous countries have slapped lockdown-style restrictions onto citizens as the Christmas period approaches.

Rex
A demonstration in Vienna two days before Austria’s fourth national lockdown[/caption]

The new Covid wave sweeping the continent could potentially be the result of a more stealthy strain of the coronavirus, experts say.

But the pressure of evolution on the virus – from new cases and vaccinations – may also force a new strain to emerge.

Called “selection pressure”, it happens when increasing immunity in the population favours a new variant that can escape the body’s defences.

Countries in Europe are ramping up virus sequencing efforts to address the risk, Dr Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said.

Asked if she is worried about a new variant emerging, Dr Ammon told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “With the high transmission ongoing right now, there is always the risk of a new variant, yes. 

“So we are really monitoring very closely, we are supporting the countries in ramping up their sequencing efforts to make sure that if there is a variant, that it’s detected very early.”

Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s commissioner for economics and taxation, said Europe should be mindful of a potential new variant in the region.

He said, according to CNBC: “It’s still the pandemic. We should be very cautious on possible new variants and we need to strengthen vaccination.”

A cluster of cases of a new variant with never-seen-before mutations made headlines across Europe last week.

French paper Le Telegramme reported that a new variant — called B.1.X or B.1.640 — had some mutations to the spike protein that scientists haven’t seen before.

Cyrille Cohen, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post that the B.1.640 variant likely came from Africa.

“I don’t want to frighten people,” he said. “There are just a few cases of B.1.640 now and it could very well be that in a month we could all forget about this variant.

“But it is an example of what could happen if there isn’t access to vaccines for everyone.

“This variant exemplifies that if you leave some of the world’s population without access to vaccines, then the virus will continue to multiply and it will lead to more variants.”

Protests broke out in a number of countries – including Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Italy and the Netherlands – at sudden new Covid restrictions, mandatory jabs and vaccine “passports”. 

Violence erupted in Brussels after 35,000 people gathered to protest, while water cannons were used to disperse crowds in the Netherlands.

It came after people in Austria found out they would be plunged back into a nationwide lockdown from Monday, and fresh curbs were slapped on unvaccinated Germans. 

Both nations are also on the way to mandatory vaccines, fuelling rage.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Europe was the only region in the world where Covid-related deaths had increased last week.

It warned of half a million more deaths by February if nothing is done.

While about 60 per cent of people in Western Europe are fully jabbed against Covid, including 80 per cent of Britons, only about half as many are vaccinated in the eastern part.

WHO said the highest numbers of new cases last week were in Russia, Germany and the UK.

UK next?

But the UK is “already ahead” of the wave in Europe, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of those behind the creation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said.

He claimed it is “unlikely” the UK will see a rise similar to parts of Europe, telling th

He told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “We’ve actually had some spread (of the virus) going on since the summer, and so I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see the very sharp rise in the next few months that’s just been seen. 

“We’re already ahead of that with this particular virus, the Delta variant.”

Prof Pollard said coronavirus remains “a major global public health problem”, but that in the UK “the balance is shifting because of the vaccine programme that has been in place”.

Other experts watching the events unfold over Europe said it “may come to that” in the UK.

Professor John Ashton, formerly regional director of public health for the North West of England, told Good Morning Britain on Friday: “There are still millions of people who are not double vaccinated in the UK. 

“And that’s a problem because the virus is still circulating, and while the virus is circulating, there is the potential for more mutations.”

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said while the picture remains “uncertain”, there are a number of factors which could help the UK avoid the situation seen in other countries.

She told Sky’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme: “We dealt with our Delta wave in the summer and early autumn. We’re still in it of course but not those big rises.

“And then the other features are around, unfortunately, because we’ve had high infections in the past, we’ve probably a bit more natural immunity in the population – as in immunity post-infection, particularly for younger groups who’ve not been eligible for vaccines.”

The vaccine rollouts are also slightly different in that the dosing gap between first and second doses in many of the European countries was smaller than in the UK, she said.

But she added there is an element of “grave concern actually in trying to determine whether there are differences in the situation in Europe, or whether it’s just a matter of time until this faces us here”.

Professor Bauld said taking up booster offers and continuing to demonstrate cautious behaviour will help avoid winter being a “disaster” and a repeat of last Christmas.

Bookings for booster jabs are opening this week in England for people aged 40 and over.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds will also be able to book in for their second jab from Monday.

Health Secretary said it is the vaccine programme, rather than immunity from infection, that means the British people are more protected from the Covid-19 winter wave than other European countries.

Sajid Javid said the country is “firmly” sticking to Plan A at the moment – but ministers must “remain cautious, not complacent in any way” as virus panic sweeps across Europe.

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