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Call for pan-European defense against new SARS-CoV-2 variants

South Africa

Scientists have published an action plan for pan-European defense against new SARS-CoV-2 variants in the Lancet.

The B.1.1.7 and B1.351 variants, first identified in the UK and South Africa, respectively, have spread to many European countries. Although the biological properties of these variants are yet to be characterized, epidemiological data suggest they have a higher transmissibility than the original variant, writes the scientists.

A novel wave if viral spread

These viral properties could increase the effective reproduction number R in the population. In the case of B.1.1.7, estimates suggest R could increase from 1 to about 1.4 with no change in population behavior. If true, many countries that have succeeded in reducing R to 1 or less will be confronted with a novel wave of viral spread despite the current measures. Once a more contagious variant has established itself, stabilizing the number of new infections will become increasingly difficult, the scientists state.

“While awaiting experimental data to understand the new variants, pan-European decisions have to be made, and actions have to be taken immediately to contain the spread of new variants,” they state.

Containment and mitigation become more challenging with the rise of a more infectious variant. Assuming that the B.1.1.7 variant does increase R from 1 to 1.4, then allowing it to spread without a change in population behavior will mean case numbers double every week. “Major efforts will be necessary to bring R back down to 1 or less and to regain control. Acting before B.1.1.7 has spread widely means that those same major efforts could strongly reduce the number of new cases and slow down the establishment of B.1.1.7. Europe needs to act now to delay and prevent any further spread of SARS-CoV-2, particularly B.1.1.7, even in the absence of final experimental data,” they write.

A clear plan for immediate pan-European action and rapid establishment of public health measures needs to be formulated since new variants with increased infectivity are likely to continue to arise. “We suggest possible core measures in the panel. The guiding principle is to reduce case numbers as quickly as possible as this has strong advantages for health, society and economy. The joint action of all European countries will make each national and local effort more effective and impactful and safeguard public health across Europe.”

Read the suggested core measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe here!

The authors of the correspondence are: Viola Priesemann, Rudi Balling, Melanie M Brinkmann, Sandra Ciesek, Thomas Czypionka, Isabella Eckerle, Giulia Giordano, Claudia Hanson, Zdenek Hel, Pirta Hotulainen, Peter Klimek, Armin Nassehi, Andreas Peichl, Matjaz Perc, Elena Petelos, Barbara Prainsack, Ewa Szczurek

Photo: iStock/Empty streets in South Africa, April 2020