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U.K.’s Covid-19 Strains Fed by Travel, Genetic Study Finds

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 1/8/2021 Marthe Fourcade
a person standing in front of a sign: Passengers wearing protective face masks pass an advert for Jet2 holidays at London Stansted Airport, operated by Manchester Airport Plc, in Stansted, U.K., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Airlines kicked off 2021 by shrinking their already meager U.K. schedules, prompted by a new coronavirus lockdown and the prospect of further restrictions on travel abroad. © Bloomberg Passengers wearing protective face masks pass an advert for Jet2 holidays at London Stansted Airport, operated by Manchester Airport Plc, in Stansted, U.K., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Airlines kicked off 2021 by shrinking their already meager U.K. schedules, prompted by a new coronavirus lockdown and the prospect of further restrictions on travel abroad.

(Bloomberg) --

A genetic study of the virus that causes Covid-19 highlights the role of international travel as concerns grow about the appearance of a potentially highly transmissible variant in countries around the world.

Travelers coming from Spain and France contributed to the diversity of variants in the U.K.’s coronavirus outbreak, researchers said in a study published Friday in the journal Science. Health officials have focused their attention on a strain called B.1.1.7 that surfaced in the U.K. and is now cropping up in countries around the world.

International travel restrictions can have devastating economic and social consequences, and governments have wrestled with when and how severe they should be in response to the pandemic. The World Health Organization has faced criticism for refraining from recommending curbs on travel, in contrast to its moves in the SARS outbreak 18 years ago.

“By reconstructing where and when Covid-19 was introduced to the U.K., we can see that earlier travel and quarantine interventions could have helped to reduce the acceleration and intensity of the U.K.’s first wave,” Oliver Pybus, a professor of evolution and infectious disease at the University of Oxford and one of the study’s lead authors, said in a statement.

New Lockdowns

The research comes as the U.K. plunges into its third national lockdown to curb the spread of the variant that’s estimated to be as much as 70% more contagious than earlier strains and has dispersed as far as Colorado and Japan.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday introduced an added testing requirement for travelers coming into the U.K. from most countries, while maintaining quarantine requirements already in place.

The government’s tightening marks the latest blow to airlines devastated by clampdowns that have intensified with rising infection rates rise. Ryanair Holdings Plc, EasyJet Plc and IAG SA’s British Airways pared back their schedules this week in response to new restrictions.

“U.K. aviation is, once again, effectively closed,” Airport Operators Association Chief Executive Officer Karen Dee said in a statement. “This has made a devastating situation for U.K. airports and communities relying on aviation worse.”

Meanwhile, research promoted by airlines and planemakers has failed to convince policymakers or the public that air travel is safe.

Read more: Airlines Stir Doubts With ‘Flying Is Safe’ Claim on Covid-19

While the government is sympathetic to restarting travel, the restrictions will remain in effect until it’s safe to ease them, Aviation Minister Robert Courts said in a Bloomberg TV interview Friday.

“If the progress of the pandemic takes a turn for the better, we’ll look if there’s anything we can do,” Courts said.

Transmission Lines

The study from Oxford and the University of Edinburgh analyzed how the U.K. outbreak unfolded by looking into the genetic lineage of transmission. Their work suggests travel fed the genetic variety of the outbreak, creating a fertile context for new variants to arise.

The transmission chains that lingered were the larger ones found in most locations, Pybus and his colleagues found. The most persistent virus lineages from the first outbreak were still present in the summer and may have seeded a new wave of infections, the scientists said.

They analyzed the genomes of more than 50,000 virus samples, and combined that with travel and epidemiological data.

(Updates with comment U.K. testing requirement, aviation minister comment from sixth paragraph)

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