Spanish hospitals keep a close eye on emerging virus mutations

by Lorraine Williamson
virus mutations
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MADRID – 36 hospitals in Spain are continuously conducting spot checks to detect any new variants of the coronavirus. Now that the pandemic is increasingly under control with the vaccination campaign, only possible virus mutations remain a threat. 

This concerns variants of the coronavirus that cause more serious symptoms when infected and against which the available vaccines are not or less effective. Epidemiologists generally agree the coronavirus will continue to circulate among us, that there will still be occasional outbreaks. But that infections with the virus will become increasingly mild. 

Virus mutations

The fact that coronavirus is now claiming fewer fatalities is due to the resistance built up through vaccinations and infections. However, a virus mutation could, therefore, throw a spanner in the works for this prognosis. A situation that is not considered likely by epidemiologists, but which cannot be ruled out either. 

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One of the Spanish hospitals monitoring the emergence of a virus mutation is the Hospital Universitario de la Paz, Madrid. Because the number of infections in Spain has fallen sharply, the genetic structure of the coronavirus is analysed here daily for all positive tests. Being able to exclude a virus variant takes between 4 and 7 days per sample. The results are included in a database, together with those of the 35 other hospitals that perform these analyses. 

Global database 

This database is supplemented by hospitals and laboratories from around the world and is accessible to all scientists working on Covid-19. The data can be used to track exactly how the coronavirus is developing and when it becomes a greater threat to public health. At the request of the European Commission, all member states must now analyse at least between 5% and 10% of positive corona tests for the genetic structure. That should be enough to detect a new circulating variant. 

Situation under control 

At the beginning of 2021, the alpha variant gained ground in Spain. Then, in the spring, the more contagious delta variant arrived and has remained the dominant virus variant ever since. The number of infections has now fallen so sharply that only 1% of the tests taken in the aforementioned La Paz hospital are positive. The percentage of positive tests is an important indicator for the course of the epidemic. When the number of positive tests is 5% or lower, the situation is considered “under control” by the WHO. Last Friday, this percentage in Spain averaged 2.8%. 

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