British COVID-19 variant may be dominant in Belgium by early March, scientists say

File photo. Shopping street of Brussels at the first day of the Winter sales in Brussels, Belgium, 4 January 2021. [Olivier Hoslet/EPA/EFE]

The new British variant of the novel coronavirus could replace almost all current strains of the virus in Belgium by the end of February, a group of scientists advising the government said in a report on Thursday (28 January).

The study led by the virology lab of KU Leuven university is of particular concern for Belgium, which already has one of the world’s highest per capita death rates from coronavirus. The study found that the British variant is 65% more infectious and is spreading quickly in the country of 11 million.

“It is already plainly clear that the variant will become the dominant strain in a very short time-span, being projected to reach 90% of all newly diagnosed infections before the end of February,” the report said.

The figures are of concern because they would mean the reproduction rate, which indicates how many people a single person with COVID-19 can infect, would jump to around 1.65 from 1.0 today, the report said.

Emmanuel André, one of the virologists who led the study, told Belgian broadcaster RTBF that the third wave of infections had already begun in the country that is home to the European Union and NATO, but there was still time to avoid a new lockdown.

Belgium is not under a strict lockdown but bars, cafes and restaurants remain closed while home working is mandatory and the government has imposed a curfew. Residents are banned from going on holiday abroad until 1 March to limit the spread of more infectious coronavirus variants.

For Jan Jambon, Minister-President of the Flemish region, there is not much room left for additional measures.

“I choose the option of enforcing the current measures. We have been very strict for a long time, you also have to be able to maintain support among the population,” he told Belgium’s Radio1.

The federal government is due to meet on 5 February to decide reopening of hairdressers from 13 February. Belgium has officially recorded 20,933 COVID-19-related deaths so far.

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