A NEW mutation of the coronavirus could have been fuelled by tourists returning home from Spain during the summer months, experts have warned.
The 20A.EU1 strain was first detected in June in farm workers in Catalonia and Aragon and scientists have claimed that it now accounts for half of the infections in the UK.
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The mutation – responsible for 90 per cent of new infections in Spain in June, may have spread across Europe due to tourists visiting the country.
In September and October, the new strain accounted for around 50 per cent of infections in the UK.
The experts claimed that it’s so far unclear whether the strain had spread rapidly due to it being more contagious than others – or because of holiday makers.
During the summer months, Brits travelling to Spain would have to quarantine for 14 days on return.
In June the measures were briefly lifted – which led to many Brits booking holidays to top up their summer tan.
Just a month later the restrictions were imposed once more as infections started to rise in Spain.
The author of the study, Dr Emma Hodcroft, said those who were infected abroad were in more risky settings, which they also visited when they returned home, this she said, could have given 20A.EU1 a transmission advantage.
The paper, which has not yet been reviewed by other scientists, claims the strain is also behind 80 per cent of infections in Spain, 60 per cent in Ireland and up to 40 per cent in Switzerland and France.
All viruses mutate as they develop and there are hundreds of variations of the coronavirus.
Dr Hodcroft warned that travel around Europe might have to “grind to a halt again” due to the strain but said Europe would “open up” again at some point.
She said: “The spread of 20A.EU1 shows how a series of failures in #SARSCoV2 measures likely led to its dominance: high prevalence in Spain, ineffective travel screening/quarantine, & insufficient control of transmission of variants brought back to ‘home’ countries.
“When countries have worked hard to get #SARSCoV2 #COVID19 cases down to low numbers, identifying better ways to ‘open up’ without risking a rise in cases is critical. A better understanding of what role travel plays will make a difference in devising effective measures.”
She added that it was unlikely that the new strain would have an impact on the development of a vaccine.
The researchers state that it is possible that the strain has a particular mutation in the spike protein that Covid-19 uses to invade cells.
Since July the strain has been found in 12 European countries, it has also gone international, spreading to Hong Kong and New Zealand.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Dr Hodcroft said the cases were tracked back by looking at the genetic material inside the virus.
“These usually don’t affect how the virus works but they give us bread crumbs that we can follow. If we see that viruses are similar then we know they are closely related.
“Essentially we can make a virus family tree that we can monitor as it moves through countries.”
She said there had been a super spreading event in agricultural workers in Spain which was then able to spread into the local population.
“We are in the process of working with labs to more closely inspect the mutations, but it’s really behaviour here that is the key point.
“There were three main failures here really. First cases were rising in Spain earlier than in most of Europe and we still allowed people to travel there.
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“On top of that we didn’t do much screening of passengers at airports and it’s likely people didn’t follow the quarantine the way they were supposed to.
“If the variant did get back to another European country, the countries weren’t able to cut it off with a few people – instead it was able to spread widely.”
Dr Hodcroft added that the strain is not the most prominent in the whole of Europe.
“It’s associated with the second wave, but it’s not responsible for it”, she added.