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Spain and Kent virus strains behind spike in Covid cases earlier this year

Pic: Johnny Bugeja

The so-called ‘Spanish’ and ‘UK Kent’ strains of Covid-19 were behind the spike in cases in Gibraltar of the Christmas and New Year period, research by the Gibraltar Health Authority has shown.

Researchers conducted genome sequencing on more than 300 samples to establish which strains were behind the surge in cases that left 94 people dead earlier this year.

The samples were taken between December 23, 2020, and February 2, 2021, and showed a 50:50 split between the Spanish strain (B.1.177) and the Kent strain (B1.1.7).

Until now, it had been widely assumed that the highly-infectious Kent strain had been behind the spike in infections, but the data shows the Spanish strain was just as prevalent.

Importantly, no South African (B.1.351) or Brazilian (P.1) variants of the virus were detected.

“The confirmation of the emergence of these more transmissible strains among Gibraltar’s population is not surprising, especially given how quickly this strain - the ‘Kent variant’ - became the dominant strain in the UK and the close link and frequent travel between Gibraltar and the UK,” No.6 Convent Place said in a statement.

“The data shows that these factors added to the rapid spread of Covid-19 in Gibraltar in December and January.”

“The presence of the UK variant also highlights Gibraltar’s vulnerability as a small, close community to the introduction and spread of new variants of the virus.”

“It is also not yet known how future strains might affect us, for example in terms of increased transmissibility or escaping the protective effects of the vaccine.”

“This means that as restrictions are eased and we return to our normal lives, we must continue to remain vigilant and continue to follow the established best practices to protect ourselves: social distancing, frequent handwashing and reporting any symptoms to 111 as soon as they start.”

The GHA’s genome sequencing research was led by Consultant Paediatrician and lead clinician at the Covid-19 laboratory at the University of Gibraltar, Dr Daniel Cassaglia, and GHA Consultant Clinical Microbiologist, Dr Nick Cortes.

Samantha Sacramento, the Minister for Health and Civil Contingencies, said the research demonstrated the level of depth and detail at which Gibraltar was monitoring the Covid-19 pandemic and the prevalence of different strains on the Rock.

“Gibraltar is extremely privileged that despite our small size, we have such accomplished professionals doing this vital work,” she said.

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