The second wave of the European coronavirus may have started among fruit pickers in northern Spain before it was spread by tourists across the continent.
Scientists have identified a new strain of the virus that they believe is responsible for much of the second wave, which first appeared in northern Spain in June.
From there, it spread to countries like Germany, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Ireland – likely carried by tourists when the borders reopened.
Once it got into local communities, it spread like wildfire, accounting for up to 70 percent of cases in some of these countries in September.
The new research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was carried out by scientists from the University of Basel in Switzerland and the University of Valencia.
A new strain of coronavirus, now prevalent in several hard-hit countries, emerged among fruit pickers in northern Spain in late June and was believed to have been spread by tourists when the borders reopened before it became widespread in local communities as the Locks have been relaxed
The first case of the new strain was discovered in northern Spain on June 20, just a day before the country reopened its borders to EU tourists (pictured, people relaxing on a beach in northern Spain on June 20).
Europe was hard hit by the second wave of the coronavirus. Cases increased faster than any other continent until new locks brought the spread under control.
More than 16 million cases and 366,000 deaths have now been confirmed across the continent, according to the European Center for Disease Control.
Data shows the second wave began in June and July before cases skyrocketed in September when cold weather set in – which causes respiratory infections to spread faster – but how exactly it came about has remained a mystery until now remained.
A new paper released in October suggests that much of the second wave was due to the outbreak of a new strain of the virus that began in northern Spain.
The new strain is not a fresh mutation, so vaccines still under development will be working on it, but rather a slightly different variant of the virus that appeared in Wuhan.
It is not known exactly where this strain – called 20A.EU1 – came from, but it was first detected in fruit pickers in the provinces of Catalonia and Aragon on the border with France.
Fruit pickers usually live in crowded houses with poor sanitation or on the street. These conditions are great for disease spreading.
Scientists say the earliest sample of the virus was found on June 20, just a day before Spain opened its borders to EU tourists.
Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to suffer from a second wave of the coronavirus. Cases increased rapidly (in orange) in late summer before spreading to the rest of Europe
Coronavirus deaths during the second wave are still well below the first thanks to improved treatments and tests that report outbreaks early on, but continue to rise
It was then discovered in the UK, Ireland and Switzerland in mid-July, likely carried back by tourists who took advantage of newly eased border restrictions after being locked in strict lockdowns at home for months.
By the end of July, samples from Belgium and Norway showed the virus had got there, while more samples were showing up in the UK and Ireland.
And in August, tests on virus samples from Italy, Germany, Sweden, France and Latvia showed that the strain had reached those countries too.
The strain has also occurred in the Netherlands, although the study does not tell when exactly it got there.
In these countries, the exposure spread like wildfire, likely because “airlifts” meant those who returned home without symptoms did not need to be isolated.
Others may have just ignored the guide. A major outbreak in Bolton in northern England has been traced back to a vacationer who had returned from Ibiza and was not in quarantine.
The new virus strain was eliminated by September The researchers examined more than 70 percent of the samples in Switzerland, Ireland and Great Britain.
The virus is also "widespread" in Norway, Latvia, the Netherlands and France, the researchers said.
Many of the countries affected by the new variety – the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and France – were hardest hit by the second wave.
Spain's coronavirus infections bottomed out in June before starting to rise in July, shortly after the new strain emerged, and then rising rapidly in late summer and into fall
Deaths during the second wave of coronavirus have not kept up with the first wave, but have increased rapidly in Spain in recent weeks
All of these countries have since reintroduced a version of the full lockdown to bring cases under control.
The virus is also rising rapidly in Sweden, which has so far resisted a lockdown but has taken some stricter measures to control the spread.
Why the virus is spreading so quickly is unclear.
Scientists say it is possible that the new strain is more contagious than previous strains, but simply at the right moment – when borders were reopened and inland lockdown rules relaxed – could have sprung up to spread widely.
The study concludes: “Our analysis shows that countries should carefully consider their approach to travelers from areas with high SARS-CoV-2 incidence when resuming travel across Europe.
“Regardless of whether the 20A.EU1 cluster identified here has spread rapidly due to a transmission advantage or epidemiological factors alone, its introduction and increase in prevalence in several countries implies that the guidelines and restrictions for summer travel in general were insufficient to prevent forwarding.
“While long-term travel restrictions and border closings are unsustainable or desirable, identifying better ways to reduce the risk of introducing variants and ensuring that the introduced variants don't spread will help countries meet often hard-won goals that are small SARS-CoV-2 transmission. "
Europe was hit hard by a second wave of coronavirus, with cases rising faster than any other continent until lockdowns helped reduce the spread (pictured, a patient in Italy is being treated on a ventilator).
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