(BBC) – Spain has confirmed four cases of the more contagious coronavirus variant recently identified in the UK – the latest European country to do so.
The infections – all in Madrid – were linked to recent UK travel, the regional deputy health chief said.
France, Denmark and the Netherlands have also reported cases in the past few days.
Scientists say the new variant is considerably more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily any more dangerous for those infected.
Madrid deputy health chief Antonio Zapatero said the confirmed cases involved three relatives of a man who flew from the UK on Thursday.
The fourth case concerned another man, who had also travelled from the UK.
Mr Zapatero said none of the patients were seriously ill and there was “no need for alarm”.
He said there were three further suspected cases of the new variant, though test results will not be ready before Tuesday or Wednesday.
What do we know about the spread of the new variant?
News of the cases in Spain came just hours after France confirmed its first patient known to have the new variant.
The French health ministry said the person was a French citizen in the central town of Tours who had arrived from London on 19 December.
The ministry said the man, who had been living in the UK, was asymptomatic, and currently self-isolating at home.
France closed its border with the UK after the new variant was confirmed in Britain but ended its ban for EU citizens on Wednesday, providing people tested negative before travelling.
Thousands of lorry drivers spent Christmas Day in their cabs in Kent waiting to cross the English Channel.
Other countries have also reported cases of the new variant: on Friday, Japan confirmed five infections in passengers who had all arrived from the UK, while cases in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia were reported earlier.
Last week, France lifted its national lockdown, but the government said the infection rate had not fallen sufficiently for a further easing.
France has reported more than 2.5 million confirmed Covid infections since the start of the outbreak, with more than 62,000 deaths – the seventh highest total deaths in the world.
The country’s first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations meanwhile were delivered from Belgium to the health system’s central pharmacy just outside Paris on Saturday, AFP news agency reports.
The first shots are due to be administered to patients at two facilities for the elderly – in Sevran and Dijon – on Sunday.
What is the new variant?
The new variant first detected in southern England in September is blamed for sharp rises in levels of positive tests in recent weeks in London, south-east England and the east of England.
About two-thirds of people testing positive in these areas could have the new variant – but this is only an estimate, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says.
Three things are coming together that mean the new variant is attracting attention:
- It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
- It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
- Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells
All of these build a case for a virus that can spread more easily, says the BBC’s health and science correspondent, James Gallagher.
However, there is no evidence that the new variant is more lethal, and the leading vaccines developed in recent months should still work, experts say.
How did the world respond to the UK’s new variant crisis?
More than 40 countries banned all UK arrivals earlier this month.
Flights from the UK were suspended to territories across the world including Spain, India and Hong Kong.
Hundreds of people were stranded for hours as a result of the travel curbs.
Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait went even further, closing their borders completely for a week.