Holidaymakers returning from Spain spread new strain of coronavirus across Europe
Scientists trace second-wave Covid strain to super-spreader event among farm workers
Infected farm workers in Spain were a significant factor behind Europe’s disastrous second wave of the coronavirus, a study suggests.
An international team of scientists tracked the origin of the continent’s second wave through a genetic variant of the virus – 20A.EU1 – which was linked to a single super-spreading event among farm workers in Spain in the summer.
Scientists said the mutation accounts for the vast majority of cases in several countries, including more than 80 per cent in the UK.
The study found a failure to quarantine holidaymakers effectively upon returning from Spain and a lack of airport testing allowed the virus to spread rapidly across Europe.
Each variant of the virus leaves behind “breadcrumbs” through its unique genetic signature, allowing scientists to trace it back to its place of origin.
Dr Emma Hodcroft, a University of Basel evolutionary geneticist and lead author of the study, said the virus swept from farm workers in north-east Spain to the wider population in June – when European air travel was increasing after the spring shutdown.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Spain is a wonderful holiday destination and many people headed there.
“But it allowed the virus to move to many countries across Europe and when it got there it was able to spread quite rapidly.”
Dr Hodcroft said quarantine failures were largely to blame for the spread of the second wave.
“The cases were rising in Spain but we still allowed people to travel there – we didn’t really do much screening at airports – and it’s very likely positive people didn’t follow the quarantine as they were supposed to,” she said.
“Finally, if the variant did get back to another European country, they weren’t able to cut it off quickly enough.”
The mutated virus is not believed to be more infectious, nor is it likely to hinder the development of a vaccine, Dr Hodcroft said.
“It’s not very different than the variants we saw in spring,” she said.
Spain’s coronavirus tally climbed by 23,580 cases on Thursday, marking a new one-day record for infection cases.
Like other European countries, Spain has resorted to increasingly drastic measures to curb the spread in recent days.
While restrictions are less stringent than in Germany or France, the country approved a six-month extension of a state of emergency that grants regional authorities the power to impose curfews and close their borders to anyone moving without a good excuse.
Most of the country’s 17 regions, including Madrid, Catalonia and Andalusia, took advantage of the measure.
In wealthy Catalonia, authorities banned travel in and out of the territory for 15 days and extended a shutdown of bars and restaurants, angering workers in the sector.
“I think they are acting late and quite badly,” said one hospitality worker in Barcelona.
“Some measures might work but many others will simply bring down the economy and won’t bring anything positive, such as the closure of bars and restaurants.”
But Health Minister Salvador Illa said the situation was “very worrying”.
“Winter is coming ... and we’re in a situation of high risk,” he said.
In neighbouring France, traffic stretched to record levels only hours before a new national lockdown came into force.
Traffic stretched back to a cumulative 690 kilometres in the wider Paris region early on Thursday evening.
People have been ordered to stay at home except for essential work or medical reasons, and many sought to leave the city as the new restrictions became law.
President Emmanuel Macron said the country risked being “overwhelmed by a second wave that no doubt will be harder than the first”.
In contrast, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted a second national lockdown was not inevitable, and suggested that the government’s regional approach could work if people stuck to the rules for their area.
Asked whether a national lockdown was inevitable, Mr Raab told the BBC: “No, I don’t think that is right, but what we are guided by is the rate of the virus.
“We’ve seen some evidence since we started putting in place this tiered approach that the rate of increase has slowed.
“When you’ve got this focused approach, we really need full compliance, full co-operation, and we really need to lean into this, and that is the way we avoid the more drastic measures that we don’t want to take because of the impact they would have on the economy.”
New infections in England increased by about 51,900 each day last week, a steep increase on the 35,200 daily cases the week before, a survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found on Friday.
The ONS Infection Survey estimated 568,100 people were infected between October 17 to 23, up from 433,300 the week before.
Nottinghamshire became the latest English county to move into the top tier of restrictions.
West Yorkshire is also set to fall under the harshest restrictions in the days to come.
From Monday, it will take the total number of people living in very high restrictions to about 11 million – almost a fifth of England’s population.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government had moved quickly to prevent intensive care facilities being overwhelmed, and called for a joint effort to face the crisis.
“We are in a dramatic situation at the start of the cold season. It affects us all, without exception,” she said.
Month-long restrictions reducing social contact were “necessary and proportionate.”
Warning of difficult months ahead, Mrs Merkel said: “The winter will be hard.”
While Paris and Berlin hope month-long lockdowns will be enough to slow the spread of the disease, there was little certainty about whether they would be enough for a return to even near-normality.
“We want to do everything so that French people can be with their families and their friends for the festivities at the end of the year,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said.
“Will it be the same? Possibly not.”
Updated: October 31, 2020 08:18 PM