The Delta variant is beginning to spread and threaten the EU’s progress on Covid

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The variant delta coronavirus that has caught the UK has become dominant in Portugal and appeared in clusters in Germany, France and Spain, prompting European health officials to warn that further action is needed to slow its spread.

While the new strain, which first appeared in India, still accounts for a fraction of the total coronavirus cases in mainland Europe, it is gaining ground, according to an FT analysis of global genomic data from the Gisaid virus tracking database. It accounts for 96 percent of sequenced Covid-19 infections in Portugal, more than 20 percent in Italy and around 16 percent in Belgium, the FT’s calculations show.

The small but rising number of cases has raised concerns that the Delta variant could halt the EU’s progress over the past two months in reducing new infections and deaths to their lowest levels since at least the fall.

“We are in the process of destroying the virus and the pandemic, and we must under no circumstances let the Delta variant gain the upper hand,” said French Health Minister Olivier Véran on Tuesday in front of reporters in a Paris vaccination center.

Véran said that 2 to 4 percent of the virus samples analyzed in France were found to be Delta variants: “You could say this is still low, but it is similar to the UK a few weeks ago.” the FT suggests that this number could be higher.

In Portugal, a joint transmission of the variant was found in the greater Lisbon area, where more than 60 percent of the country’s new coronavirus cases were identified in the past week. Non-essential travel to and from the city was banned to prevent the cases from spreading to the rest of the country.

Scientists across the continent are now looking in the UK – where Covid-19 cases have tripled in the last month and the Delta variant accounts for about 98 percent of all new infections – for clues as to what could happen next and what action may be needed be taken.

After official data showed that the Delta variant appeared to increase the risk of hospitalization by 2.2 times compared to the Alpha variant, the UK government this week imposed a one-month delay in lifting its remaining coronavirus restrictions.

“The decisions Britain is making to reopen life and society will serve as a laboratory for us in Europe,” said Bruno Lina, a Lyon virologist who advises the French government and helps coordinate variant sequencing in the country.

Whether or not the accumulations of delta infections in the EU turn into major outbreaks depends in part on how many people are fully vaccinated, according to scientists, and how people behave now, as many life and business restrictions are lifted.

Chart showing that there are signs that many states are now experiencing a shrinking breakout of the alpha variant and a growing delta

Recent research by the UK government has highlighted the need to complete vaccination programs as soon as possible. According to data from Public Health England, the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine against the Delta variant is generally less effective than the previous strains. Two doses increase protection against symptomatic Delta infections from 33 percent to 81 percent.

While around 46 percent of the UK population is fully vaccinated, vaccination rates in most mainland European countries range between 20 and 30 percent. About 26 percent of the population in France are 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 percent of the most recent infections in the region. Delta variant clusters have also been identified in the southern suburbs of Paris and an art school in Strasbourg in recent weeks.

In each case, health officials have responded with the same formula: step up contact tracing and try again to vaccinate people in the affected areas.

“If we keep vaccinating at a good pace and do some non-pharmaceutical interventions like masks indoors, we can still suppress the circulation of the virus this summer,” said Lina, the French virologist. “This variant will displace the others – we have to keep that in mind – but that does not mean that it will lead to a new wave of epidemics.”

Vaccination center in Jutland, Denmark
Denmark has identified only a small number of Delta infections, although the variant arrived in the country around the same time as the UK. © Henning Bagger / EPA-EFE

Some scientists fear that the Delta variant may have already spread further but went undetected as less genome sequencing is required to identify variants in mainland Europe. While the UK has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, Germany, France and Spain have sequenced around 130,000, 47,000 and 34,000, respectively.

“It’s expensive, time-consuming and has been neglected,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.

However, Denmark has sequenced a high percentage of cases and still only identified a low number of Delta infections, although the variant arrived in the country around the same time as the UK.

This could be explained in part by differences in demographics and movement, according to experts, including the number of cases imported into the country from regions with high prevalence such as India and the living conditions in the communities where they were sown.

The difference in the rate at which Delta spreads across European countries remained “a 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 is to increase the percentage of people fully vaccinated while slowing down the transmission of the virus as much as possible.

“We have to keep the messages very clear,” said Lina in Lille. “It’s not over.”

Additional reporting from Daniel Dombey, Peter Wise, Guy Chazan and Clive Cookson



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