European experts have urged caution over the new strain of Covid-19 discovered in the UK, saying much is still unclear about the new N501Y mutation and how fast it spreads.

After 18 European countries either suspended travel links from Britain or imposed stricter quarantine requirements on Sunday night, scientists said more data was needed before firm conclusions could be drawn.

Christian Drosten, a leading German virologist, said he expected the new strain was already in circulation in Germany, but added that he was “everything but worried” about the viral mutation at the moment.

The scientific data around N501Y was still unclear, Drosten told the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Monday. Claims that the strain was 70% more transmissible appeared to be an estimate for now, he said, and would need to be verified by British scientists over the course of this week.

Drosten said: “The question is: is this virus being boosted by a coming new wave in the region concerned [south-east England], or is this virus responsible for creating this wave in the first place? That’s an important difference.”

Drosten said the strain had also been detected in other countries such as the Netherlands, where it did not appear to have multiplied in a significantly more rapid way. “I am open to new scientific insights, and in science there are always surprises, but I am everything but worried in this respect,” he said.

In France, Vincent Enouf of the Institut Pasteur said there was no proved link between the new mutation and the more rapid spread of the virus in Britain.

“We’re told is it spreading faster in parts of the UK,” Enouf told France 2 television. “But is that the result of a super-spreader transmitting the virus, or of the new mutation? All of this still has to be verified.”

The Dutch government confirmed on Sunday that a case with the new mutation had been diagnosed in the country at the beginning of December, suggesting it may already have been in the country for some time.

But it does not so far appear to be spreading as fast in the Netherlands as in the UK, Ab Osterhaus, emeritus professor of virology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.

“In areas where the number of infections rise particularly fast, it tends to get linked to the mutation,” Ostarhaus said. “But I don’t know at all yet whether that’s justified.”

Another infectious diseases expert, Bart Haagmans of the Erasmus Medical Centre, said: “It’s difficult to make a clear connection between transmissions and mutations. Is the rapid spread really due to a mutation, or do other factors play a role?”

Marion Koopmans, the head of the Erasmus department of viroscience, said there were indications that the new variant may be more contagious but more research was needed. Moreover, she said, “the Netherlands is already in lockdown. That would help prevent rapid spread here.”

In Italy, which has also diagnosed the N501Y mutation in a woman recently arrived from London and which has continental Europe’s highest death toll from the coronavirus, ministers and media were less reassuring.

The health minister, Roberto Speranza, said: “If the virus arrived unnoticed from Wuhan, how can we not be worried about a new strain which in all probability is already in Rome, Venice and Turin?” Sole24Ore headlined its article on the mutation: “The English variant is scary.”

Massimo Galli, an infectious diseases specialist at the university of Milan, said it was possible that “we are faced with a variation that is not more dangerous, but that perhaps has a greater capacity to spread”. Further research was needed before such a claim could be substantiated, he said

Source: The Guardian

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