‘British Covid strain could be benefiting us’, Spanish health chief

The massive expansion of the UK Covid strain across Spain could be “leaving no room” for other variants of the coronavirus to spread throughout the population, the country’s chief epidemiologist Fernando Simón said on Monday.

'British Covid strain could be benefiting us', Spanish health chief
Photo: Gabriel Buoys/AFP

“It’s now our variant,” Simón told journalists during Monday’s state press conference, in reference to the fact that the strain that was first detected in the UK is now the most predominant of the Covid variants in Spain.

In 11 Spanish regions the B.1.1.7 variant is responsible for more than 70 percent of new cases and in five others it accounts for more than 90 percent of new infections (Asturias, Galicia, Cantabria, Navarre and Catalonia).

Simón, who in January had forecast that the impact of the so-called British strain would be marginal, has now said that its expansion across the Spanish population “could be benefiting us” as “it’s leaving no room” for the South African and Brazilian variants to take hold.

“The Brazilian and the South African strains are the ones that interest us and worry us most,” Simón, told journalists on Monday.

The head of Spain’s Centre for Health Alerts and Emergency Coordination added that it wasn’t necessary to give the rapid spread of the UK coronavirus variant “too much importance” and that instead it was preferable to “be very careful” with the other two variants, which have so far had a limited impact in Spain but are reported to be more aggressive and harder to stop.


AstraZeneca vaccine for over 65s “soon”

“It is possible that the AstraZeneca vaccine in Spain may be offered soon to people over 65 years of age, ” Simón said at a press conference.

Spain’s health ministry announced last Tuesday that it was extending the roll-out of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to the over-65s, after recent scientific reassurances about its safety.

But health authorities are still vaccinating Spain’s over 80s, having inoculated 70 percent of this age group by the start of April.

“Every time we have more solid evidence that in people over 65 the AstraZeneca vaccine will have the effect that we would like it to have,” Simón stated.

On March 10th the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended the AstraZeneca vaccine for people over 65 after several countries had set that age limit at 55, including Spain.

Spain was also among a number of European Union countries that suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month after reports of blood clots in a very small number of people.

But they resumed its use on March 24th after both the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency gave the vaccine a clean bill of health.

A recent study in renowned medical journal The Lancet which researched whether the AstraZeneca vaccine worked well in protecting against the B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the British strain, found that it helped protect against symptomatic illness caused by this novel variant.

READ ALSO: In Europe questions linger over possible AstraZeneca jab side-effects

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.