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Coronavirus widespread in UK at very start of pandemic

4 May 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1045

Testing for coronavirus in Iceland has revealed that the virus may have been more widespread in the UK in February and early March than was previously thought. 

In a population study, approximately 13,000 randomly selected Icelandic participants were screened for coronavirus between 16 March and 4 April. The study results showed that out of the 100 people who tested positive, 12 percent had travelled to the UK, as compared to 1.8 percent of those who tested negative. Further, genome sequencing of coronavirus strains isolated from the people who tested positive, revealed that a substantial number of strains seemed to have originated in the UK. 

'We found that a large number of the original cases came from the UK' said study author Dr Kári Stefánsson, who led the testing effort, in an interview with Roger Highfield from the Science Museum Group. 'As soon as the population screening started, it was dominated by UK-origin virus, so this was spreading quickly through the Icelandic population from February.'

Coronavirus strains mutate slightly as they spread through populations, leading to small changes in their genome. These mutations act like a barcode, or signature, meaning it is possible to follow the spread of the virus using genome sequencing technologies.

Dr Stefánsson told Sky News: 'It looks like the virus had a fairly widespread in Great Britain very, very early in this epidemic.'

The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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