World News

Several Countries Find Cases of the New Coronavirus Variant

Posted December 27, 2020 2:58 p.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2020 7:09 a.m. EST

Canada, France, Japan, Spain and Norway have found small numbers of infections involving a new, potentially more transmissible variant of the coronavirus, most linked to travel from Britain, where it was first detected.

The rapid spread of the variant led to the lockdown of London and southern England, prompted a temporary French blockade of the English Channel and resulted in countries around the world barring travelers coming from Britain. Because few countries have the level of genomic surveillance that Britain does, there is concern that the variant may have been traveling across the world undetected for weeks.

A recent study by British scientists found no evidence that the variant was more deadly than others but estimated that it was 56% more contagious.

The British variant has been diagnosed in seven people in Japan, the country’s health ministry said. All had either recently traveled to Britain or were in contact with someone who had.

The discovery in Japan prompted the country to close its borders to all new entry by nonresident foreigners. The ban will go into effect at midnight Monday and last through the end of January, the public broadcaster NHK reported.

In Spain, the variant was found in the capital region, local authorities said Saturday. Antonio Zapatero, a regional health official, said that four cases had been confirmed in Madrid, while another three were being treated as suspicious. At least two of the cases involve people who had recently been to Britain and then tested positive in Madrid, as well as some of their relatives.

In France, the first case of the new variant was identified Friday, according to the country’s health ministry. Officials said the patient was a French citizen living in Britain who had traveled from London to Tours, a city in central France, on Dec. 19, a day before the British government imposed a lockdown because of the variant.

Officials in Sweden said Saturday that a case of the variant had been detected there after a traveler visited Sormland, near Stockholm, from Britain over Christmas, Reuters reported.

Health officials in Ontario, Canada, said Saturday that they had confirmed two cases of the variant in the province. The two cases included a couple from Durham, about 90 miles northwest of Toronto. The couple had no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts, the province’s health ministry said.

And Sunday, the Institute of Public Health in Oslo reported that two travelers from Britain who had entered Norway this month had the new variant, according to Reuters.

It is normal for viruses to mutate, and most of the coronavirus mutations have proved minor. The British variant has a constellation of 23 mutations, several of which might alter its transmissibility. Vaccine experts are confident that the available vaccines will be able to block the new variant, although that has to be confirmed by laboratory experiments that are now underway.

A few other concerning variants have also been identified, including one in South Africa and another in Nigeria. Britain said Thursday that it would ban travel from South Africa after the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said two people were confirmed to have been infected with the variant that emerged there.

Germany, the Netherlands, Lebanon, Australia and Singapore have identified infections with the new variant. And Denmark, which has wider genomic surveillance than many other countries, detected 33 cases of it from Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, according to Danish health authorities.

The United States has not yet reported any cases of the British variant. But the country will require all airline passengers arriving from Britain to test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their departure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. The rule will take effect Monday.

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