In Depth

When did coronavirus really reach the UK?

New research says lack of vigilance in UK led to early spread of Covid-19

The new coronavirus was widespread in the UK at the very start of the pandemic, says one of the world’s leading human genetics experts.

Dr Kari Stefansson, who is overseeing a huge coronavirus sourcing project in Iceland, claims a lack of vigilance by authorities allowed the virus to take hold in the UK.

What does the Icelandic research tell us?

Stefansson’s project genetically sequences every confirmed case of coronavirus in Iceland, to learn more about how the virus spreads and mutates.

By doing this, researchers can see where the virus came from.

“So the virus now has basically a barcode for every part of the world,” Stefansson told Sky News. “There is a collection of mutation that is relatively characteristic for Austria, another for Italy as well as Great Britain and for the west coast of the United States etc.”

Almost all of the cases coming into Iceland at the beginning of the coronavirus’s arrival in the country came from Austria and Italy, where Icelanders had been away skiing.

But when authorities tried to contain viral cases coming in from high-risk countries, they missed infected people coming in from apparently lower-risk countries.

“As they were doing this, the virus was actually sneaking into the country with people from all kinds of other countries,” said Stefansson.

What does this mean for the UK?

One of the countries most highly represented in the Icelandic coronavirus data is the UK.

“The most notable there is Great Britain. So it looks like the virus had a fairly wide spread in Great Britain very, very early in this epidemic,” said Stefansson.

According to the professor, the UK wasn’t vigilant enough at the time of the initial outbreak, failing to test in high enough numbers.

Testing, says Stefansson, is the only way to track the virus’s progression through a community, allowing authorities to quickly identify and isolate those who could spread the disease.

Iceland has tested a higher percentage of the population than any other nation, says Sky News: around 45,000 tests have been carried out in a population of 360,000 – a percentage of 12.5%. The UK has carried out 719,910 tests, but this amounts to around 1% of the population.

Responding to the suggestion that it was easier to test and trace in such a small nation, Stefansson said: “Yes, there may be fewer of us but countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have much, much more resources than we do.

“It is all just a question of using what you have. They weren’t vigilant enough. They didn’t react to this early enough.

“You know, the countries that taught us the methods that we are using, in doing this in a place like Iceland, they didn’t use it themselves. And that is tragic.”

The first cases of coronavirus in the UK were confirmed in late January, when two Chinese tourists became unwell in a York city centre hotel.

They were taken to an infectious disease unit in Newcastle, where their positive status was confirmed, reported The Times.

The first case of community transmission – people infecting one another inside the country, rather than contracting the disease abroad – happened in late February. The Department of Health and Social Care said the original source of this case – a man from Surrey – was “unclear”, with no “immediately identifiable link” to overseas travel, said the BBC.

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What else can the Icelandic research tell us about the virus?

As well as testing for coronavirus, Stefansson’s lab, called deCODE, is taking blood from willing participants to test for antibodies against the virus.

And the company is examining the question of whether some people are genetically predisposed to suffer less or more with the virus.

“There are those who describe this as a mild cold,” said Stefansson. “There are those who end up in the intensive care unit on a respirator. And there is everything in between.

“We know that women have less tendency to get infected than men. And if they get infected, they don’t get as sick as men. What is it that generates this clinical diversity?”

DeCODE has begun sharing its initial findings in the hope of finding an answer, says Stefansson.

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