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Covid-19: Where in Spain have Indian variant cases been detected?

Several cases of the B.1.617 coronavirus strain have now been confirmed in Spain. Where have they been detected and what have Spanish health authorities said about a Covid strain which has the world’s eyes on India currently?

Covid-19: Where in Spain have Indian variant cases been detected?
Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

What’s the latest?

After a suspected Indian strain case in Valencia which has not yet been confirmed, the alarms went off on Thursday April 29th in the coastal northwestern city of Vigo (Galicia), when an outbreak of the coronavirus was detected on board a Singapore-flagged ship whose crew is South Asian.

On Saturday, regional health authorities confirmed that seven crew members were indeed infected with the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus, the first confirmed cases of the Indian variant in Spain.

The other 18 members of the Prometheus Leader are being kept under quarantine on board the vessel and are receiving constant medical attention.

Have there been any other cases?

Another suspected case was soon after confirmed in the western region of Extremadura, reported to be an international masters student who took part in a course in Madrid where he worked with an Indian student.

Two other B.1.617 cases have also been confirmed in Catalonia on Monday and Spanish health authorities are now studying 3 suspected cases in Bilbao, 13 in Valencia and four in the Canary Islands, all of which are crew members on board ships that have docked at Spanish ports.

That takes the total number of confirmed Indian variant cases in Spain up to ten. 

What have Spanish health authorities said?

“The intel does not indicate that we have to worry about it,” Spain’s Emergencies Coordinator Chief Fernando Simón said prior to the confirmed Indian variant cases in Spain, arguing this because the UK variant now makes up 94 percent of all infections in Spain.

Spain decided on April 27th to make all travellers arriving from India undergo a 10-day quarantine to prevent the potential spread of the Asian country’s variant within the Spanish territory. 

However, it wasn’t until Saturday May 1st that the measure came into effect, leading some critics to question why the quarantine wasn’t implemented immediately

Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP

Spain also decided to impose restrictions on travellers from India later than its European counterparts Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Italy and the Netherlands.

In the latest update by Spain’s Centre for Health Alerts and Emergencies (CCAES), the Indian variant continues to be classified as “of interest” rather than “of concern”, suggesting that Spanish health authorities believe the arrival of this new strain in Spain doesn’t currently pose a threat to the country’s epidemiological situation.

“There is not enough information to know the impact it could be having on the increase in the infection rate in India,” reads the CCAES document published on Tuesday.

Spanish vaccination and microbiology experts have however called Spanish health authorities to be “on alert” due to the high contagion capacity of this new strain of coronavirus.

What makes the Indian variant different?

The quick transmission of this Covid-19 strainis currently causing havoc in India, with over 400,000 cases a day and more than 3,000 deaths per day for a week.

The B.1.617 variant has been reported in around 17 countries, raising global concerns. 

It contains two key mutations to the outer “spike” portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, said senior Indian virologist Shahid Jameel.

India on Friday posted another record daily rise in coronavirus cases with 386,452 new infections, while deaths from Covid-19 jumped by 3,498 over the last 24 hours, according to Indian health ministry data.

Experts however warn the real figures in the world’s second-most populous country, with a population of 1.3 billion, are much higher than the official data.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India last December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020.

The WHO has described it as a “variant of interest”, suggesting it may have mutations that would make the virus more transmissible, cause more severe disease or evade vaccine immunity.

Other strains with known risks, such as those first detected in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, have been categorised as “variants of concern,” a higher threat level.

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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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