The Delta coronavirus variant that swept the UK has become dominant in Portugal and appeared in clusters across Germany, France and Spain, prompting European health officials to warn further action is needed to slow its spread.
While the new strain, which first emerged in India, still only accounts for a fraction of the total coronavirus cases in mainland Europe, it is gaining ground, according to a Financial Times analysis of global genomic data from the virus tracking database Gisaid. It accounts for 96 per cent of sequenced Covid-19 infections in Portugal, more than 20 per cent in Italy and about 16 per cent in Belgium, the FT’s calculations show.
The small but rising number of cases have raised concerns that the Delta variant could halt the progress the EU has made over past the two months in bringing new infections and deaths down to their lowest level since at least the autumn.
“We are in the process of crushing the virus and crushing the pandemic, and we must in no way let the Delta variant get the upper hand,” France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, told reporters at a Paris vaccination centre on Tuesday.
Véran said that 2 per cent to 4 per cent of virus samples being analysed in France were showing as the Delta variant: “You might say this is still low but it is similar to the situation in the UK a few weeks ago.” The FT’s analysis of Gisaid’s data suggests this figure could be higher.
In Portugal, community transmission of the variant has been detected in the greater Lisbon area, where more than 60 per cent of the country’s new coronavirus cases in the past week have been identified. Non-essential travel to and from the city has been banned in an effort to prevent the spike in cases spreading to the rest of the country.
Scientists across the continent are now looking to the UK — where Covid-19 cases have tripled in the past month and the Delta variant accounts for about 98 per cent of all new infections — for clues about what may happen next and which measures may need to be taken.
After official data showed the Delta variant appeared to increase the risk of hospitalisation by 2.2 times compared with the Alpha variant, the UK government this week imposed a one month delay to the removal of its remaining coronavirus restrictions.
“The decisions the UK makes to reopen life and society will serve as a laboratory for us in Europe,” said Bruno Lina, a virologist in Lyon who advises the French government and helps co-ordinate variant sequencing in the country.
Whether the clusters of Delta infections peppering the EU turn into bigger outbreaks will depend in part on how many people have been fully vaccinated, scientists said, as well as people’s behaviour now that many restrictions on life and business are being lifted.
Recent UK government research has highlighted the need to complete vaccination programmes as quickly as possible. According to data gathered by Public Health England, the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is generally less effective against the Delta variant than with the previous strains. Two doses increases protection against symptomatic infection with Delta from 33 per cent to 81 per cent.
While in the UK about 46 per cent of the population has been fully immunised, vaccination rates in most countries in mainland Europe are hovering at between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. About 26 per cent of the population in France has been fully vaccinated.
French authorities are currently trying to contain an outbreak in the Landes region, near the Spanish border, where 125 cases of the Delta variant have been confirmed by genetic sequencing and another 130 are suspected, representing about 30 per cent of recent infections in the area. Clusters of the Delta variant have also been identified in recent weeks in the southern suburbs of Paris and an art school in Strasbourg.
In each case health officials have responded with the same formula: increased contact tracing and a renewed push to vaccinate people in the affected areas.
“If we keep vaccination going at a good pace, and some non-pharmaceutical interventions like masks indoors, we can still repress the circulation of the virus this summer,” said Lina, the French virologist. “This variant will displace the other ones — we must keep that in mind — but it doesn’t mean that it will lead to a new epidemic wave.”
Some scientists fear the Delta variant may have already spread further but gone undetected given that less of the genomic sequencing needed to identify variants has been completed in mainland Europe. While the UK has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, Germany, France and Spain have sequenced about 130,000, 47,000 and 34,000 respectively.
“It’s costly, it’s time consuming and it was neglected,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.
Denmark, however, has sequenced a high proportion of cases and still only identified a small number of Delta infections, even though the variant arrived in the country at approximately the same time as in the UK.
This could be explained partly, experts said, by differences in demographics and movement, including the number of cases imported into the country from regions with a high prevalence, such as India, and the living conditions in the communities into which it is seeded.
The difference in the pace of Delta’s spread across European countries remained “a little bit of a mystery”, said Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.
Still, many experts believe that wherever the Delta variant is introduced, it will eventually become dominant. The key, they say, will be to increase the proportion of fully vaccinated people, while slowing transmission of the virus as much as possible.
“We have to keep the messaging very clear,” said Lina in Lille. “This is not over.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey, Peter Wise, Guy Chazan and Clive Cookson