New COVID strain travels round world as Australia detects fast-spreading mutated form of virus

Victoria Bell
·6-min read

Watch: New strain found in Denmark, Gibraltar, Netherlands, Italy and Australia

Australia has detected cases of the new fast-spreading variant of coronavirus identified in the UK.

Two travellers from Britain to New South Wales were found to be carrying the mutated strain, which is said to be up to 70% more infectious than existing strains, and are now in hotel quarantine,

The new variant has also been identified in Denmark and the Netherlands, while Italian authorities said it had been detected in a traveller who recently returned to the country from the UK.

France’s health minister said on Monday it was “entirely possible” the new strain was also circulating there.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 21: People are seen walking along Market Street in Sydney's CBD on December 21, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Sydney's northern beaches is on lockdown, as a cluster of Covid-19 cases continues to grow causing other Australian states and territories to impose restrictions on travel ahead of the Christmas holidays. As the list of venues impacted across Sydney increases, people are encouraged to get tested and isolate. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
Sydney's northern beaches are on lockdown, as a cluster of COVID-19 cases continue to grow causing other Australian states and territories to impose restrictions on travel ahead of the Christmas holidays. (Getty)

UK health secretary Matt Hancock said last week that the new variant appeared to be linked to the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England, prompting Boris Johnson to impose tougher measures across large swaths of the country ahead of Christmas.

On Monday, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said it was “unlikely” this was a chance event and said there was “a very, very strong correlation” between the areas showing fastest growth in cases and the new variant.

As a result, several European countries shut their borders to UK travellers, while other nations such as Canada and Iran suspended all flights from the UK as an emergency response.

Where did the new strain spring from?

The origin of the new strain of the virus has yet to be confirmed. Preliminary research suggests the two earliest sampled genomes that belong to this specific lineage – known as B.1.1.7 – were collected on 20 September in Kent and on 21 September in Greater London.

However, multiple mutations that may have influenced the new strain’s genetic sequence, making its origins further back harder to pin down.

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According to Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, one of the potentially key mutations – identified as N501Y – that scientists believe could be making the virus more virulent may have been circulating in Brazil in April, in Australia in June/July, and in the US in July.

A separate mutation – known as 69-70del – was also identified as early as at least January this year in Thailand and Germany.

It could be that these mutations, after circulating globally earlier in the year, subsequently combined into this new variant in the UK.

How concerned should we be?

The new variant of coronavirus is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the UK.

Most scientists say concern is justified and that the new variant has rapidly become the dominant strain in cases of COVID-19 in parts of southern England.

"It is right to take it seriously," said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. Shaun Fitzgerald, a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, said the situation was "extremely concerning".

There are a handful of dissenting voices. Christian Drosten, a German virologist, said he was not worried about the new strain, and suggested the 70% figure may have been seized upon too quickly by the media.

The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and some affect its ability to spread.

‘Incredibly frustrating’

The recent spike in infections seen in Sydney is not linked to the new mutation, New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant said.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 11: Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes opening remarks during a convening of the Federation Reform Council at Old Parliament House on December 11, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. The National Federation Reform Council (NFRC) has been established to replace Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meetings. (Photo by Mick Tsikas-Pool/Getty Images)
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has said the current coronavirus outbreak in Sydney is not linked to the new mutation. (Getty)

Sydney has recorded 83 cases so far in this outbreak, all linked to the city’s Northern Beaches region.

On Monday the state’s health department reported 15 new infections.

Every state now has border restrictions with Sydney, causing disruption to travel plans in the run-up to Christmas.

“I understand that it will be disappointing and frustrating because of the disruptions that have taken place,” prime minister Scott Morrison said at a press conference in Canberra.

“And I have no doubt that the premiers feel the same way, but the actions that have been taken are necessary.”

UK put into isolation

On Sunday, France announced a 48-hour ban on passengers and freight entering from the UK.

Miles of lorry queues were pictured on Monday morning in Kent as drivers were urged not to travel to ports.

Watch: Queues of lorries in Kent as France ban hauliers carrying freight across the channel

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said emergency measures were being put in place to cope with a backlog.

He confirmed that the disused Manston Airport in Kent would be used as a lorry park, and said Operation Stack – the contingency measures used to queue on the M20 whenever there is disruption at the channel – was already in place.

Lorries queue on the A20 to enter the port of Dover in Kent. Christmas stockpiling and Brexit uncertainty have again caused huge queues of lorries to stack up in Kent. The latest delays came as the UK marked less than two weeks until 2021 and the end of the Brexit transition period. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Lorries queue on the A20 to enter the port of Dover in Kent. (Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)

Shapps dismissed concerns over the impact of the travel ban on supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine, which is manufactured in Belgium, because container freight was unaffected.

The transport secretary attempted to calm fears, saying hauliers were “quite used to anticipating disruption” and adding there were variations in supply “all the time”.

He said he was talking to French counterpart Jean-Baptiste Djebbari and told Sky News: “The absolute key is to get this resolved as soon as possible.”

Asked if consumers will see shortages in supermarkets, Shapps said: “The supply chain is pretty robust inasmuch as you get variations in supply all the time. For the most part, people won’t notice it.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the Covid-19 pandemic, at 10 Downing Street, London.
Boris Johnson during the news conference on Saturday to announce further restrictions in the run-up to Christmas. (PA)

However, Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said the disruption could cause problems with “fresh food supply” in the run-up to Christmas.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “With it being so close to Christmas we’re looking at 48 hours at this point in time in terms of the restrictions, we’re likely to see Operation Stack building in terms of numbers of vehicles on the UK side and that might be a deterrent for EU hauliers to want to come so close to Christmas and end up being stranded here, that’s part of the challenge that we’re facing today.”

An empty platform at Blackfriars tube station in central London. Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas for almost 18 million people across London and eastern and south-east England following warnings from scientists of the rapid spread of the new variant of coronavirus. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
An empty platform at Blackfriars tube station in central London after London was plunged into Tier 4. (Getty Images)

Supermarket Sainsbury’s has warned there could be “gaps over the coming days” in the supply of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year.

The prime minister now faces demands to recall Parliament to address the crisis, which follows the introduction of a new Tier 4 level of lockdown on London and large parts of South East England.

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