A CORONAVIRUS strain similar to the latest UK mutation was already spreading through Italy in August, a leading virus expert has revealed.
The ‘Italian variant’ was circulating weeks before the first known cases of the UK strain and could have been a ‘precursor’ to the mutation in England, according to virologist Arnaldo Caruso.
Scientists found the strain while analysing swab samples from a patient who had suffered an unusually persistent Covid-19 infection, the president of the Italian Society of Virology told news agency Adnkronos.
The patient had first been diagnosed with Covid-19 in April, but was still recording “positive results with highly charged viruses” in August.
“To our surprise we realised that we had identified a new variant, similar but not identical to the English variant that was also starting to circulate in Italy,” said Caruso, a professor at the University of Brescia in northern Italy.
The similarity “between the variant we have identified and the English one leads us to think that the former may have actually generated the others that are emerging today in our continent,” he added.
The variant is similar to the UK strain SARS-CoV-2, but has an extra, second mutation, said Caruso.
Analysis of virus sequences from epidemiologists at the University of Rome “tells us that this new Italian variant could have been generated around early July”, added Caruso.
I remain optimistic at the moment
Professor Arnaldo Caruso
But he confirmed that “ours is certainly the first evidence of mutations” in the distinctive ‘spike’ proteins in Italy and possibly in Europe.
As with the more-infectious UK variant, there is no evidence that the Italian strain will make current vaccines less effective in protecting people from Covid-19.
“I remain optimistic at the moment,” Caruso said of the new strain.
The latest data from Italy comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) urged countries to keep testing and sharing results as multiple new strains and mutations are detected.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned there would be Covid-19 “setbacks” in 2021.
“There will be setbacks and new challenges in the year ahead – for example new variants of Covid-19 and helping people who are tired of the pandemic continue to combat it,” said the WHO director-general.
He added the WHO is working closely with scientists across the world to “better understand any and all changes to the virus” and their impact.
Mr Tedros said he wanted to “underscore the importance of increasing genomic sequencing capacity worldwide” and of sharing information with the UN health agency and other countries.
“Only if countries are looking and testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope,” he added.
UK variant spreads worldwide
India today became the latest country to announce the UK strain had reached it, after six people who had recently returned from Britain tested positive.
Officials in India have begun contact-tracing close contacts and family members of the six who have tested positive for the new variant, reported the BBC.
Passengers arriving from the UK will undergo tests at all airports in the country, an official statement said.
The samples found to be positive will then be genome sequenced by government-run labs in order to detect the new variant.
Around 33,000 passengers arrived in India from the UK over the past month. Of those, 114 were found to be positive for coronavirus – their samples have been sent to ten labs for genome sequencing, according to the statement.
Meanwhile Germany revealed that the new variant had already arrived by late November after doctors detected the virus in samples from a patient who later died.
A woman who flew from London to Frankfurt the weekend before Christmas also tested positive for the new variant as she arrived at the airport and has quarantined with her family in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
The UK variant has also reached Spain, where a family in Madrid tested positive after one of the family members flew in from London last Tuesday.
The UK variant is believed to spread up to 70 per cent faster and is blamed for surging cases in London and the South East.
Latest data in the UK showed 41,385 people tested positive for Covid-19 on December 28, while the R number is now estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.3.
That means that every 10 people infected will pass the virus onto between 11 and 13 people.
Another super-infectious variant detected in South Africa is fuelling a second wave of the virus there, with surging cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
Now Australia has become the latest country to confirm the presence of the new South African variant.
A woman travelling from overseas, who arrived in Queensland on December 22, tested positive while in hotel quarantine. She is now being treated in hospital.