New Covid variant has spread to ‘majority’ of Europe, says Neil Ferguson

Professor Ferguson told MPs at the Science and Technology Committee the new variant was “everywhere now”

Joe Middleton
Wednesday 23 December 2020 15:47
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The rapidly-spreading new coronavirus variant is “almost certainly” in a “great majority” of European countries, a top UK scientists has said.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of Nervtag - a SAGE sub-group, also said the variant was “everywhere now” but that he expected Tier 4 restrictions to have a beneficial impact.

Appearing via video-link, he told MPs at the Science and Technology Committee today: “The fact that they [Denmark] have picked up 10 cases with sequencing of this new variant in a country as small as Denmark with a relatively low infection rate would suggest almost certainly, in my view, that this virus has been introduced to a great majority if not all of European countries at the current time.”

Professor Ferguson, who was forced to resign from SAGE after breaking social distancing rules in the first lockdown, added: "Schools are now shut, we are in a near-lockdown situation across the country." Contact rates are lower over Christmas.

“I expect, though I hesitate to make any sort of predictions, we will see a flattening of the curve in the next two weeks. We will see at least a slowing of growth.”

The Commons committee heard today that the variant likely started from one person in Kent, and could have been caused by "random errors" when the virus copies.

Speaking of further variants, Professor Ferguson added: "I think the one of greatest concern other than ours at the moment is the South African one. they have much poorer epidemiological data, but there's certainly anecdotal reports of explosive outbreaks with that virus and very steep increases in case numbers. 

"Also Nigeria is showing sharp uptick in case numbers at the moment and we have no genetic data from there."

Professor Peter Horby, chairman of Nervtag, also appeared in front of the committee and said there were a number of possible reasons why this variant of the virus appeared to be spreading faster than others.

He said: "The underlying mechanism is not fully clear - it could be because the virus replicates faster, which means you get higher viral loads which means you are more infectious.

"It could be that it takes a shorter time between being exposed and being infectious - if that timeframe shortens you get quicker transmission.

"Or it could mean the duration of infectiousness is longer."

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