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COVID-19

Which Covid variants have been detected in Spain?

As Spain teeters on the edge of its fourth wave of the coronavirus, we take a look at the role new Covid strains are playing in rising infections in the country according to the latest government data.

Which Covid variants have been detected in Spain?
Photos: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Viruses naturally change over time through the process of mutation, so the fact that several Covid variants have been detected by international scientists is no different from most other virus outbreaks.  

So far, three main strains of the coronavirus have been identified: B.1.1.7 (the variant first seen in the United Kingdom), B.1.351 (the strain first detected in South Africa) and P.1 (the variant first found in Brazil).

The UK variant is the most dominant in Spain

The so-called British variant of the coronavirus has increased “rapidly” in recent weeks in Spain and has become “widespread” according to Spanish health authorities. 

In 11 Spanish regions the B.1.1.7 variant is responsible for more than 70 percent of new cases (Balearic Islands (81.8 percent), Castilla-La Mancha (74.4 percent), Valencian Community (78.4 percent), Melilla (78.6 percent), Murcia (72.2 percent), the Basque Country (76.2 percent) and La Rioja (74 percent).

In five other Spanish autonomous communities it accounts for more than 90 percent of new infections Asturias (98.7 percent), Galicia (95.3 percent), Cantabria (95 percent), Navarra (93.7 percent) and Catalonia (90 percent) .

“It’s now our variant,” chief epidemiologist Fernando Simón told journalists during a state press conference on Monday, adding that it “could be benefiting us” as “it’s leaving no room” for the South African and Brazilian variants to take hold.

READ MORE: 

Spain’s Health Alerts and Emergencies Coordination Centre (CCAES) stresses that the UK variant has “quickly” replaced the previous variants, and is the dominant strain in most European countries, but also in other locations such as in Israel . 

According to the Spanish Health Ministry’s Monday April 5th “update of the epidemiological situation regarding the variants of SARS-CoV-2 and their importance in public health in Spain”, it is “more transmissible, probably more lethal and it does not seem that the escape from immunity is important”.

Cells containing the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 are seen through a microscope. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP

How about the South African and Brazilian strains?

According to the document, the other main variants having an impact on the country are the South African (B.1.351) and the Brazilian (P.1).

The South African variant has so far been detected in three sporadic occasions and there have been nine outbreaks which infected 72 people with the SA strain. 

Two of the outbreaks and two sporadic cases are related to travel to Tanzania (11 cases), from Cameroon (two cases), from South Africa (one case) and from Equatorial Guinea (one case).

It hasn’t been possible to identify the link between seven of the outbreaks accounting for 59 infections, as well as one other sporadic case, and any of the areas with a high prevalence of the SA strain.

Four of the outbreaks have been detected in the same municipality.

As for the Brazilian strain, 32 cases have been detected in Spain: three isolated infections and seven outbreaks,of which five cases were related to trips to Brazil, while another was linked to a traveller flying from Venezuela. 

One of the outbreaks which caused five infections of the Brazilian strain was related to a trip to Argentina, whilst for one sporadic case and four outbreaks – with 19 cases in total – it has not been possible to identify the origin. 

One of the cases included in one of these outbreaks is a possible reinfection case, according to the study.

“The Brazilian and the South African strains are the ones that interest us and worry us most,” Fernando Simón stressed.

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.

 Are there other Covid variants in Spain?

The Health Ministry document also highlights that there are other variants of interest (VOI), although the impact they may have had on public health in Spain remains unknown.

“The combination of mutations and their expansion at the local level in certain locations makes it advisable to monitor their epidemiological situation currently,” reads the report.

Among them is variant P.2 (originally from Rio de Janeiro), of which two sporadic cases have been detected in travellers arriving from Brazil. 

An outbreak in one family has been detected with three positive cases as well as another outbreak with nine cases at a hospital, with no known links to Brazil.

The B.1.258 variant (which has spread in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) is responsible for 18 more cases found so far in four of Spain’s regions.

Of the Nigerian variant, B.1.525, one case was detected in January 2021 for which there is no epidemiological data. 

The Californian variant, B.1.429, accounts for 25 infections in Spain, of which three are sporadic and 22 are from three outbreaks in the same region. No link to travel has been established in any of them.

The Portuguese variant, C.16, has only caused one confirmed infection in Spain and there is no epidemiological data on this case either. 

Finally, A.23.1 (originating in Uganda) has triggered three confirmed cases in one region of Spain. 

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COVID-19

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.

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