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Researchers Say 90% Of Recent Coronavirus Sequences In U.K. Came From Spain

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One key to controlling the coronavirus is preventing its spread across borders. As England grinds through its second lockdown, researchers have found most sequences of new cases in the U.K. are from a coronavirus strain that originated in Spain. They think British tourists brought it home from their summer vacations. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Chris Grayley was lying in a hospital bed north of London with COVID-19 back in September. He just returned from Tenerife in Spain's Canary Islands, where he picked up the virus. He's speaking through an oxygen mask, recording himself on a cellphone.

CHRIS GRAYLEY: Hi, my name's Chris. I caught it in Tenerife.

LANGFITT: Parts of this are hard to make out. But Chris said he thought he was invincible, didn't wear a mask. He recorded this lying in an intensive care bed, not sure if he'll survive. Thankfully, Grayley did make it. He's out of the hospital now, still recovering. But he wasn't alone. Researchers found that 90% of recent sequences of the virus here came from Spain.

EMMA HODCROFT: We identified a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that seems to have started in a group of agricultural workers and then spread through Spain right as holiday travel was resuming across Europe.

LANGFITT: Emma Hodcroft is an epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She's the lead author of the study with the University of Basel and SeqCOVID-Spain, a consortium that's sequencing the virus. She says cases began to rebound in Spain in early July.

HODCROFT: Despite this, most countries still allowed holidaymakers to go to Spain - completely understandable, as Spain is a wonderful holiday destination. But we think this variant had an excellent opportunity to follow those travelers home and then start spreading in those countries.

LANGFITT: Hodcroft says the Spanish strain has no special properties and emphasizes that the research does not show it drove Britain's second wave. That was a result of people's failure to socially distance. But it does raise questions about the government's decision to encourage summer travel to the continent to support the tourism industry, but not test people when they returned.

HODCROFT: This is a great opportunity to reevaluate, how can we make this safer? - because when we've worked so hard with lockdowns to get our case numbers down, we don't want to risk that by opening up to places where case numbers are higher.

LANGFITT: How did you feel when you made this discovery?

HODCROFT: It's a feeling of disappointment because it shows that even though we did try hard over the summer, it wasn't enough.

LANGFITT: Many Britons love Spain. Some like to leave the rainy English weather behind to party along the country's sunny Mediterranean beaches. Others own homes there, including Sue Wilson, who lives in Valencia. Wilson says this summer, many British tourists ignored social distancing and didn't wear masks.

SUE WILSON: They were on holiday. So I think the common sense got thrown out of the window.

LANGFITT: As cases in Spain spiked again, the U.K. told returning travelers to self-isolate. Before Wilson flew back to England last month, she was required to fill out a government form explaining where she'd be staying. But when she arrived at the airport here, there was no follow-up.

WILSON: Nobody asked me any questions. Nobody asked to see my paperwork. I could have gone straight out the door and walked the streets, and nobody would have challenged me. If people realize that no one's going to check, then why would anybody bother to stay home?

LANGFITT: British officials declined to speak with NPR about how the government handled summer travel or the research findings regarding the Spanish strain. In a written statement, the Department of Health and Social Care said it continues to review data to assess the importation of the virus. The U.K. is averaging about 25,000 new cases and more than 400 deaths a day.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.