The variant has spread significantly in Denmark in recent weeks, according to a January 2nd status report by the Scandinavian country’s infectious disease agency, State Serum Institute (SSI).
That is despite restrictions imposing a Danish entry ban on all UK residents and negative Covid-19 test requirements on Danish citizens and residents travelling from the UK.
86 cases of the variant, which has the technical name cluster B.1.1.7, have been found by SSI, which genetically sequences a large number of samples from positive Covid-19 test swabs to identify the variant of the virus present.
Because SSI sequenced around 11 percent of all positive samples in that period, the actual number of people infected with the variant is likely to be around 9 times higher, the agency said.
The 86 cases comprise 0.8 percent of around 10,300 samples sequenced in the last 6 weeks of 2020, according to SSI’s report.
But that percentage is increasing week-by-week, with the variant appearing in 2.3 percent sequenced samples in the last week of December.
The new variant has been estimated by specialists in the UK to be up to 50-74 percent more contagious than other known forms, SSI notes. Based on what scientists know so far, however, the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness than other kinds of coronavirus.
Considerable regional variation was found in the SSI sequencing. In the last full week of 2020 (beginning December 21st), the variant comprised 7.1 percent of sequenced samples in North Jutland; 5.2 percent in Zealand; 2.3 percent in Central Jutland; and 1 percent and under in both Greater Copenhagen and Southern Denmark.
“It looks like there is actual societal spread (of the variant) in Denmark rather than isolated travel-related cases,” Roskilde University professor and researcher in virus infections and epidemics Thea Kølsen Fischer told newspaper Dagbladet Information, commenting on the data in the SSI report.
Although the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness than other kinds of coronavirus, a faster-spreading form is concerning news for Denmark’s health system, according to another expert, Eskild Petersen, an associate professor at Aarhus University’s Faculty of Health.
“Although it’s not immediately worse for patients, this is extremely concerning. With an infection rate 50 percent higher, we will get far more infections with the new form, more hospitalisations and more deaths in a relatively short space of time,” Petersen told Information.
Several other European countries have also detected cluster B.1.1.7, but this has primarily been in people who have travelled from the UK, according to SSI. This probably reflects a focus on testing and detection of the variant in this group, the agency writes. Denmark, unlike other countries, has been able to test more widely through its sequencing activities, thereby detecting some level of societal transmission.
“The spread of a more infectious virus variant can lead to a steeper epidemic curve with a higher peak. The new virus will probably continue to spread and that will mean that we must strengthen our transmission prevention strategies or maintain them for a longer period of time to keep the epidemic under control,” SSI head of department and senior medical consultant Tyra Grove Krause said in a statement.
“We are one of the countries that sequences the most samples. We can therefore follow developments closely,” Krause also said.
“We are also working on developing a new PCR (coronavirus) test that can specifically detect one of the mutations this virus has, so we can follow the development amongst all positive tests in close to real time,” she added.
“In addition, our expert group in mathematical modelling is working hard to calculate how this variant can spread in relation to the restrictions we have in society, and in relation to how many people we can vaccinate,” the SSI consultant said.
In comments published by the agency, Krause also said that although the current national lockdown will reduce virus spread, the new variant will eventually “outcompete the other viruses we have in circulation, because it is more contagious”.
“That can mean that infections quickly flare up when you lift restrictions,” she added.