MUTANT Covid may already be tearing unnoticed through Europe because surveillance on the continent is so poor, experts warn.
British scientists have analysed more samples from Wales in the past week than France has done during the whole pandemic.
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Researchers study the genome of around one in ten lab-confirmed cases in the UK, compared with just 1 in 100 in Europe.
It means the UK is far better placed to spot potentially lethal changes to the bug and track its movements across the country.
The new variant was first spotted from a sample in Kent in September but experts say it remains possible it originated abroad.
It comes as Spain today banned British travellers from travelling to the country.
Spain had wanted to wait for a unanimous decision from the EU but no agreement was reached in Brussels last night, prompting Spanish authorities to act alone.
It has said it will still allow its own citizens to return home from the UK – but has banned Brits getting into the country.
Dozens of countries have banned travel from the UK after the government reported the discovery to the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the weekend.
But the new strain, which spreads up to 70 per cent faster, is already likely to have been circulating worldwide over the past three months.
Prof Tom Connor, from the University of Cardiff said that in the last week, Public Health Wales covering Wales’s population of 3million has sequenced more viruses than the whole of France in the whole of the pandemic so far.
He added that this gives an indication of the scale of genomic surveillance that the UK has in place versus the rest of the world.
“It is probable that similar variants are popping up around the world, which are spreading locally and which would be completely unregarded, because there's no sequencing in place to identify that there's something to actually investigate and follow up on.
“We are sequencing in the UK at a disproportionate rate to other people, which means that we have a much better surveillance system for catching this.
“We first saw it in samples which originated in September, as part of a look back process.
“It's possible that that's been introduced from somewhere else, it's possible that that's evolved locally – we still don’t have the index case.
Countries that have banned or are considering banning travel from UK
These are the current countries with travel bans on the UK, please note that some of the shorter bans could be extended.
France: France put in place a 48-hour ban on travel from Britain at midnight on December 20.
Germany: Flights between Britain and Germany are banned until January 6.
Italy: All flights between the UK and Italy were suspended from December 20. Anyone entering the country from elsewhere who has been in the UK over the last 14 days will also be barred from entering.
India: Flights from the UK are banned from midnight on December 22 until December 31.
Spain: Spain will be restricting passenger travel on inbound flights from the UK from December 22, with the exception of Spanish nationals and those legally resident in Spain. This includes flights from the UK to the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands.
Denmark: All flights from the UK are banned until 9am on December 23.
Ireland: Flights from Britain are banned until at least midnight on December 23.
Canada: Flights from the UK are banned until at least midnight on December 23.
Netherlands: Flights from the UK are banned until January 1.
Belgium: Plane and Eurostar travel are banned until midnight on December 21 at the earliest.
Austria: Flight ban to be imposed on flights from the UK from midnight, December 22.
Sweden: Sweden have announced they will impose restrictions on travel from the UK, but are yet to announce a specific date and time.
Finland: Finland will be restricting travel from the UK from 21 December until January 4.
Switzerland: Switzerland have announced they will be suspending air travel to and from the UK, but are yet to announce a specific date and time.
Bulgaria: Bulgaria will be restricting air travel between Bulgaria and the UK until January 31.
Romania: Romania will be banning flights to and from the UK from 7pm on December 21 for 14 days.
Estonia: Estonia has banned flights to and from the UK until January 1.
Latvia: Latvia has banned flights to and from the UK until January 1.
Lithuania: Lithuania has restricted travel from the UK until 11.59pm on December 31.
Luxembourg: Luxembourg banned all flights between the UK and Luxembourg from midnight on December 20 for an initial 24 hour period and there has not been a new update as yet.
Poland: Flights between Poland and the UK are currently suspended, with no set end date as yet.
Portugal: Portugal has restricted passenger travel to and from the UK, regardless of nationality, with the exception of Portuguese citizens and those legally resident from 20 December, with no set end date as yet.
Croatia: Croatia restricted travel for air passengers from the UK for 48 hours from 11pm on December 20, and there is a chance that could be extended.
Turkey: Turkey have announced they will be suspending air travel to and from the UK, but are yet to announce a specific date and time.
Kuwait: From December 22, travellers will not be allowed to enter Kuwait if they have been in the UK during the preceding 14 days.
Hong Kong: From December 22, travellers who had visited the UK for more than two hours within the past 14 days will be denied entry to Hong Kong.
“But what is absolutely clear is that we don't really have very good comparatives from the rest of Europe and around the world because other people are not sequencing at the same level as us.
“And so, you know, if you were going to pick it up anywhere, you'd pick it up in the UK, because of the system that we've got in place.
“At the moment, you see cases going up in other countries, you see cases go down in other countries, and really, without genome sequence data from those countries, it's very difficult to know what's going on.”
Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, said: “We’ve sequenced 150,000 genomes which is about half the world’s data, so if you’re going to find something anywhere you’re going to find it probably here first.
“If this occurs in places that don’t have any sequencing you’re not going to find it at all.”
She said there is no evidence to suggest the new variant is more lethal and no reason to believe the vaccine being rolled out in the UK will not be effective.
But Prof Connor warned not enough time has passed to know whether the variant leads to a worse outcome for infected people.
He said: “When you’re talking about outcome you’re normally looking at 28 days after the person has been diagnosed – with a lot of these cases popping up in late December we’re not at that point where you would have that outcome information to do that analysis yet.”
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