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Children's role in transmission of UK variant needs investigation, expert says

An epidemiologist warns if the variant is increasingly virulent among kids, it could result in widespread school closures.

Pasi Pentiinen
Pasi Penttinen, a leading expert at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Image: Daniel Ivarsson / Yle

As health authorities across Europe closely monitor the mutated UK's coronavirus strain, concern is growing about the potential that the new variant could be more virulent among children.

Researchers have estimated that the UK variant is around 50 to 70 percent more contagious than the more commonly seen form of the virus.

The variant has spread rapidly in Ireland and there are also indications that it is in circulation in Denmark, for example, according to epidemiologist Pasi Penttinen, a leading expert at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

"There are no signs [the variant] causes more serious illness. However, the first results of a study suggest that [current] vaccines will work against the UK variant," Penttinen said.

The epidemiologist said a major question that needs to be answered is the new variant's virulence as well as the role that children might have in its spread, noting the risk that possible changes to the virus' structure could also cause changes in which population groups might become infected by it.

Penttinen said that there have been slight indications of this possibility in early stages of research on the topic.

"Fortunately, the data in the past few days show that there may be no change to the previous [variant], but this is still the subject of rigorous research. I believe that more detailed information will be available in the coming days or weeks," he said.

Until very recently, it was thought that the role of children in spreading coronavirus was not as significant as, for example, in the spread of influenza or respiratory syncytial (RS) virus.

Situation serious in Europe

If it is found that the mutated variant spreads more easily through children, it would potentially have far-reaching implications for the governments' coronavirus policies, such as the possibility of shutting down schools and daycare centres.

"Some very difficult discussions have been going on in many European countries about the role of school closures in tackling the pandemic, and many countries have kept primary schools and daycare centres open. That is the first thing to consider, if it's found that children play a more significant role in the spread of the disease, regarding the new variants," he said.

Due to a slower than anticipated rollout, coronavirus vaccines haven't yet made much progress in fighting the disease in Europe or Finland. Penttinen said the situation is very difficult in some parts of Europe, adding that he thinks the fight against Covid-19 will continue for another year but that some progress has been made.

"It is a very positive development that we are getting the high risk groups vaccinated, so in the coming months we will certainly reduce the risk of people getting seriously ill and we will reduce the fatal consequences at the European level," he said.

However, inoculating the elderly and other risk groups will not be enough to get the overall epidemic under control, Penttinen warned, adding that virtually everyone over the age of 40 who gets Covid is at a degree of risk of being hospitalised, requiring ICU treatment or even dying from the disease.

"Even though the vaccine is being distributed and it will reduce serious consequences at the European level in the short term, the disease will not go away in the coming months. We must have the readiness and perseverance to continue restrictive measures until an adequate vaccine coverage is reached among the adult population," Penttinen said.

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