The spread of highly contagious coronavirus variants is accelerating in Europe, outpacing an already-slow vaccine rollout and forcing governments to extend and possibly tighten restrictions on civil society and businesses to prevent a new surge in infections before the end of the region’s winter.
A shortage of vaccines in the European Union—only 4.8% of Europeans have been vaccinated since late December—means the continent hasn’t even started the race against virus mutations that many experts say will define health policy in coming months and years.
Most European countries are experiencing a steady decline in infections following months of lockdowns, yet the spread of the new variants first identified in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil—known as B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 respectively—is accelerating, meaning these viruses are rapidly gaining ground under cover from the overall declining numbers.
The three variants now circulating in Europe are believed to be more easily transmitted, and potentially more dangerous, than the original pathogen that still makes up the majority of cases in Europe. There is also mounting evidence that some strains might be less susceptible to the vaccines currently authorized in the region, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
The variant first identified in Britain accounted for 96% of viral samples examined at three major laboratories in England by early February, compared with just over a third at the beginning of December, according to the U.K. government.