New variants of the coronavirus from the U.K. and South Africa pose a high overall risk to Europe, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said Tuesday.
There is a high risk that the variants will continue to be introduced and spread around the EU and European Economic Area, the agency said in a new risk assessment. While there’s no evidence at this point that the new variants cause more severe illness, they do appear to spread more easily. That translates to a “high” impact of COVID-19 as far as hospitalizations and deaths, which is compounded by generally increased spread due to the holiday season, according to the ECDC.
“The impact of this increased pressure on health systems is considered to be high even if current public health measures are maintained,” the ECDC said.
So far, the variant from the U.K. has been detected in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. The South Africa variant hasn’t yet gotten as much of a foothold: Two cases in the U.K. and one in Finland, all directly linked to travel from South Africa.
To improve detection of new variants, the ECDC urged EU/EEA countries to emulate the U.K.’s timely and broad approach to sequencing the genomes of coronavirus cases.
The impact on vaccine efficacy is one of many unknowns about the new strain, the ECDC noted. And while age-specific data for the new U.K. variant is still pending, the agency said, school closures should be a “last resort.”