In another month, the so-called British variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 will be the dominant strain in Belgium, a virology report has warned.
The virology lab of the KU Leuven has been examining the spread of the variant, more correctly known as B.1.1.7, and has come to the conclusion that it is spreading out of control, and that existing prevention measures will not be enough to stop its spread.
From its first appearance, B.1.1.7 was known to be more infectious that the ordinary variant of SARS-CoV-2. Now, with more information and analysis, it becomes clear it is 65% more infectious.
The latest figures suggest that while the current reproduction rate is just slightly over 1.0 – where one infected person will on average infect one other person, B.1.1.7 has the power to push that rate up to 1.5-2.0.
In fact, today’s R rate is 0.98, down from more than 1.0 at the weekend, but likely to rise again according to the analysis.
The report was commissioned by federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke (sp.a) and headed by Emmanuel André, and also takes another look at the consequences of travel at Christmas.
Using genome analysis, the lab found around 100 different variants of the virus, principally the British one, followed by the South African one that made a spectacular appearance in a number of Flemish homes and schools late last week. But also a number of others, and all of them taken from returning travellers.
The imperative now, André said, is to flatten the curve. In other words to rein in the growth of the virus as much as possible while mass vaccination goes on. In other words, to keep the enemy hemmed in as much as possible while the big guns can be brought up.
André became known from his daily briefings in the first weeks of the pandemic, and his refusal to pull his punches. That much has now changed.
“I follow the models from day to day,” he told De Morgen. “I report this to the federal government twice a week: every Tuesday and every Thursday. And the models are very clear this week: if everything stays the same and there are no new measures or changes in our behaviour, the new variant will be dominant by the end of February or the beginning of March. This means that the vast majority of infections, 90 to 95 percent, will then be infections with the British variant.”
The next stage is clear, he said.
“If the measures remain the same and if most people do not apply the measures much more strictly, the third wave will quickly follow. Now people don’t see that yet, for now that wave remains below the waterline, but as the new variant takes over, the curves will continue to rise little by little, and there is a real risk that they are in danger of going completely through the roof again in early March.”
It is essential to take further measures, he said, but even those will be little more than delaying tactics.
“If we do take steps, we might be able to postpone the third wave a bit. In this way we buy time to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. That’s the game, if you want to call it that, that’s going on right now. We cannot stop the third wave for months, but we can delay the peak, bring it down and limit the number of hospital admissions. The good news is that people reading this can change their behaviour, as there is some erosion in compliance with the measures. Because the risk is not yet visible.”