British tourists risk bringing back variants of European ‘blind spots’

Italy, along with other European countries, sequesters a tiny proportion of its Covid cases

(AFP / Getty)

British holidaymakers risk bringing new variants back to the UK this summer, as data “blind spots” in Europe make it difficult to know which countries are home to newly mutated forms of the virus, scientists have warned.

While the UK has established an extensive genomic surveillance network that has enabled authorities to detect new variants as they emerge, other European countries have struggled to increase their sequencing capabilities.

The ability to sequence effectively Covid cases and sharing genomic data is a factor taken into consideration by the government when assessing which countries to add to the UK green list, as well as wider transmission risks, weekly incidence rates and evidence of ‘variants of concern ”(VoC).

However, these travel arrangements could be in jeopardy due to the spread of the Indian variant in the UK, with experts now calling for the abolition of summer holidays abroad to prevent its export.

Sequenced case information – which allows scientists to determine what type of Covid variant caused a patient’s infection – is uploaded in each country to a number of publicly available sources, including the Global Influenza Data Sharing Initiative (Gisaid).

However, Gisaid data shows that Spain, France, Italy and Greece – four of the most popular destinations for UK holidaymakers – only sequenced and shared 0.805%, 0.649%, 0.67% and 0.437% of their ratio. cases respectively.

Cog-UK, which heads the UK surveillance network, estimates countries need to sequence at least 5% of all cases to identify viral mutations and provide a clear picture of the spread of new variants. In the UK 9.34% of infections are sequenced and uploaded to Gisaid.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute, which helps lead the work of Cog-UK, said there was an “urgent need to increase sequencing capacity in all regions of the world” and to share data “quickly and efficiently. “between countries, allowing health officials to take proactive action. measures in response to new threats.

Aris Katzourakis, professor of evolution and genomics at the University of Oxford, said his team of experts had hoped to perform an analysis of the spread of variants across Europe, but were unable to do so. due to the limited availability of surveillance data.

“We basically realized how little genomic data is available in public repositories in other European countries,” he said.

He also expressed concern that some countries might sequence their cases, but not immediately share them with public sources like Gisaid.

In Greece, some 13,000 genomes have been sequenced by health officials in 393,538 cases, Professor Katzourakis said, but only 1,718 of them have been uploaded to Gisaid.

Cog-UK said there is “a lag between the sequencing of genomes and the deposit of genomes in Gisaid” – a delay that could have implications for the identification and control of an epidemic fueled by variants.

“But it’s not just Greece. There are many other resource-poor countries in Europe, ”said Professor Katzourakis.

“As countries come out of their lockdowns and travel restrictions are lifted, and everyone will start moving over the next few weeks and months, this is going to be a real problem because we don’t will not be able to follow the emergence of new variants, where they come from and how they spread. “

This, he said, could lead to the creation of ‘blind spots’, where UK travelers could be infected with a highly infectious or immune-bypassing variant before bringing it back to the UK. Tourist destinations with a high number of cases and growing local epidemics “could also lead to imports,” warned Professor Katzourakis.

Christina Pagel, professor of operations research at University College London, echoed these concerns. “There are countries where they don’t sequence at all, so we have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “And there are countries where they sequence very little, which is actually a big part of continental Europe.”

With countries like Spain, Italy, France, Greece and many others sequencing at such low rates, it begs the question whether the government will continue to dictate that UK tourists can only visit countries with reliable scientific data and genomic monitoring.

Currently, the Joint Biosafety Center assesses whether new countries can be added to the UK’s green list every three weeks, the next exam will take place on June 3. If more destinations in Europe are made available from next month, it will likely increase the risk of importing and exporting variants.

“All decisions regarding red, amber or green lists and our border controls are made by ministers based on the latest scientific data, the risk assessment of the Joint Biosafety Center and broader public health factors.” , said a government spokesperson.

British tourists can now travel to Spain without passing a Covid test on arrival, although France has said travelers must self-quarantine on arrival due to the spread of the Indian variant in the UK. Greece and Italy remain on the orange list for now, which means travel is discouraged but not prohibited.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge and scientific adviser to the government, said that increased sharing of genomic data would allow authorities to “detect much earlier” circulating variants with worrying characteristics, such as immune evasion or increased transmissibility.

As to why other countries have not followed the UK’s lead in building surveillance capacity, Prof Gupta said that “each country has to decide what it is going to do in terms of sequencing. Some could do it if they wanted to, but it costs money and requires infrastructure. “

Experts meanwhile said the government should not encourage summer travel due to the threat posed by the Indian variant. “From a more altruistic perspective, we shouldn’t go on vacation and release B.1.617.2 to other places,” Professor Pagel said.

Professor Gupta said that “overall” the prevalence of the Indian variant in the UK meant that UK holidaymakers were more of a “major risk” to the rest of Europe, “rather the other way around”.

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