The list of countries restricting or banning travel from the UK today grew to over 40, including much of continental Europe. The international responses to the new ‘variant’ of the virus range from outright bans to new self-isolation requirements regardless of a negative PCR test (as in the case of Greece). The border closures are not all limited to UK travellers either. Sweden has banned visitors from Denmark as well as the UK, and Saudi Arabia has slammed its borders shut completely. The knee-jerk actions are reminiscent of the early phase of the pandemic, where country after country copied each other’s panicky lockdowns. It deals yet another blow to the ailing travel and airline industries, as cancelled flights out of the UK number in the hundreds and climbing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a press conference yesterday and scarcely mentioned the unfolding travel bans. Instead, he focused on the ongoing issues at the Dover-Calais crossing, insisting that the blockade would be resolved in a matter of hours after a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in today’s Telegraph, closing the UK-France border is just another exercise in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Emmanuel Macron’s ban on lorries entering France wins the prize for the most pointless political gesture since the onset of this pandemic. The mutant strain B.1.1.7 is already all over Europe.
British scientists spotted it early and have tracked it in real-time because the UK has carried out almost as much genome sequencing of COVID-19 as the rest of the world combined. Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage says the UK has the most advanced genomic monitoring regime on the planet.
Denmark is one of the few other states in Europe that also does extensive and rapid sequencing. Lo and behold, the Danes have found the same mutation. Many countries do little or no genomic sequencing at all.
It stretches credulity to imagine that a variant picked up in samples as far back as September is not already rampant in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and indeed France. It had months to run when borders were wide open, long before the second lockdowns.
He goes on to quote the German virologist Christian Drosten whose somewhat sceptical comments in a German radio interview were also picked up by the Daily Mail.
Christian Drosten, Angela’s Merkel’s pandemic guru, says the mutation is almost certainly spreading in Germany already and he is sceptical about the data interpretation by Prof Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial. “I am not particularly worried,” he told Deutschlandfunk, taking a gentle swipe at headline bio-hysteria.
Prof Drosten is careful not to violate scientific etiquette but he came as close as you can to rebuking the British Government – and by implication the modellers on the NERVTAG committee – for pushing a conclusion beyond the known evidence.
He questions the pseudo-quantification behind claims that the new strain is 70% more transmissible. “There are too many unknown strains to say something like that,” he told Covid reporter Kai Kupferschmidt.
Interesting that Christian Drosten, the lead author on the paper that wrote the rules on mass PCR testing that is currently being challenged by Dr Mike Yeadon and others, is a “mutant strain” sceptic.
Another expert to add a note of moderation was the microbiologist Dr Hugh Pennington, whose comments yesterday were reported in the Press and Journal.
The Aberdeen University Professor said: “The big issue with the variant is that it’s no nastier than the first one that came in March.
“It doesn’t kill people more readily or make them any more unwell but it’s said to be more transmissible. However, that’s what we’re being told. We have not seen any evidence to back that claim up.
“We haven’t seen any data that shows the increase in England is down to the new variant rather than people just not behaving themselves. Politicians won’t want to say that.
“If this virus has mutated to become more transmissible that would be a scientific novelty.
“It could be a coincidence with it getting commoner as the infection rate goes up.”
He said the only way to be sure, ahead of waiting on retrospective studies, would be to find out if the variant is more transmissible by checking what the infected dose is of one person to compare.
Mr Pennington added: “Is it more transmissible because you only have to breathe in a smaller dose of it? Or does somebody infected with it breathe out more virus?
“That’s what they need to find out.
The only other way to find out if people were more susceptible to this variant was through a volunteer study where you’d “pump the virus” into a room full of people… “and that’s unethical”, he added.
“It’s very hard to prove whether something is more transmissible or less. I’m not saying it’s not possible… but I would like to see more evidence.”
The Telegraph also reports that the ‘variant’ was spotted in Brazil eight months ago, adding weight to the idea that the strain has been circulating much longer than was thought to be the case – much like the ‘original’ strain for which patients in Italy had developed antibodies as early as September 2019, months before there was an official case recorded anywhere.
It’s even possible that the increased transmissibility could be a good thing, and an inevitable step in the well-established evolutionary process by which viruses become more infectious and less deadly, as the long-standing sceptic and retired NHS Consultant Dr John Lee writes in The Daily Mail.
Mutation of this (and every other virus) is inevitable – and, in fact, it needn’t always be a bad thing.
As new strains of a virus emerge, they naturally evolve towards variants that may be more transmissible but which cause mild or no disease.
Why should this be so? Because it actually benefits the virus – it is more likely to survive, reproduce and spread to ever increasing numbers of individuals if it doesn’t kill its hosts.
Crucially for us, if the new strain isn’t as virulent, its spread among Britain’s healthy populace could even be advantageous.
Exposure to it would stimulate the immune system to produce a response against it, so providing future protection as we move to a general level of immunity in the population.
So why don’t Johnson or Hancock publicly acknowledge this? Why do they persist instead with terrifying rhetoric of a ‘mutant’ virus spreading out of control?
Dr Lee’s piece is worth reading in full.
Stop Press: Regular Lockdown Sceptics contributor Dr Clare Craig gave a comprehensive interview to talkRADIO yesterday morning with Mark Dolan, covering topics including the new ‘variant’. Worth watching.
Stop Press 2: At the time of writing, the complete list of 42 countries which has banned travel from the UK is: Belgium, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, South Africa, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, France, Malta, Sweden, Turkey, Hong Kong, Canada, India, Russia, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, El Salvador, Ireland, Czech Republic, Colombia, Morocco, Chile, Finland and Argentina.
Stop Press 3: Boris Johnson has agreed to set up testing facilities to allow stranded hauliers to enter France, conditional on a negative test.