New variants risk fresh Covid-19 surge, ECDC warns

Health authority urges strong action to prevent new wave before vaccines are rolled out

Tough and immediate public health interventions are needed to prevent a fresh wave of Covid-19 deaths caused by more infectious variants of the virus that are sweeping the continent, European health authorities have warned.

The mutant strain of Covid-19 that first emerged in Britain may cause more severe disease as well as being more infectious, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) cautioned in a report that showed the variant taking hold across Europe.

"Modelling studies show that unless non-pharmaceutical interventions are continued or even strengthened, a significant increase in Covid-19-related cases and deaths should be anticipated in the coming months," warned ECDC director Andrea Ammon in a statement.

She urged national authorities to scale up sequencing operations to keep track of the variants, as well as stepping up “testing, contact tracing, isolation of cases, and quarantining of their contacts”.


The B117 variant first detected in England accounts for 75 per cent of cases in Ireland and is becoming increasingly dominant elsewhere, making up about 45 per cent of cases in Portugal, 30 per cent in the Netherlands and 27 per cent in Denmark.

Ireland’s dramatic spike in cases over Christmas alarmed European governments, which are anticipating the variant could cause similar surges elsewhere due to the Irish experience.

“Based on growth trajectories observed, several other countries are expecting a similar situation in the coming weeks,” the ECDC report said, warning of “very high” risk to vulnerable individuals due to the further spread of the variants.

It urged national authorities to speed up the vaccination of the highest risk groups such as the elderly and healthcare workers to slow the spread, while recommending public health measures to encourage remote working, face masks, and the avoidance of non-essential travel. Once all other measures have already been applied, schools could be closed “as a last resort”, starting with the oldest students and working down, the report said.


Two other variants of concern are also in circulation in Europe: a Brazilian strain, and a more infectious mutation first detected in South Africa that is resistant to vaccines. Austria is battling a large outbreak of the South African variant concentrated in the Tyrol region, while clusters have also emerged in Belgium.

The emergence of new variants that current vaccines are less effective against “may occur repeatedly in the future”, the ECDC wrote, and this would need to be combatted by the development of new and updated vaccines.

Alarm over the new variants is triggering tough new restrictions on travel in Europe and the hardening of borders, including Germany's partial closure of its borders with Austria and the Czech Republic, with long traffic jams caused by vehicle checkpoints.

The ECDC also flagged the risk that “pandemic fatigue” could undermine public adherence to health measures, noting that protests and unrest in several European cities indicated “some parts of the public have reached the limits of their tolerance” of restrictions.

“Increasing levels of pandemic fatigue need to be properly addressed as a matter of urgency if further waves of infection are to be avoided and population compliance is to be maintained,” the report said. “Public expectations about the likelihood of easing restrictions need to be carefully managed.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times