(Reuters) – Seven residents of a nursing home in Belgium have died after being infected with the Colombian variant of the coronavirus, despite being fully vaccinated, the virology team that conducted tests said on Friday.
The virus variant known as B.1.621 originated in Colombia and has been detected in recent weeks in the United States and UK, but cases in Europe have been rare.
The seven people who died at the nursing home in the Belgian town of Zaventem, near Brussels, were all in their 80s or 90s, and some of them were already in a poor physical condition, said Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the University of Leuven which conducted tests on the strain found at the nursing home.
“It is worrisome,” Van Ranst said, commenting on the fact that the residents died despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
So far, scientists do not know if the Colombian variant is more transmissible than other variants, he said.
In Belgium, the variant currently accounts for less than 1% of known cases of COVID-19, he said, compared to 2% of cases in the United States and more than that in Florida.
At the nursing home in Zaventem, 21 residents were infected with the variant along with several members of staff, Van Ranst told Reuters. The infected staff experienced only mild symptoms.
Van Ranst said the dominant coronavirus variant in Belgium with around 95% of infections is the Delta, first discovered in India, followed by the Alpha that was previously dominant in Britain.
Additional tests will be run on Friday to rule out any possibility that the nursing home residents died from a different variant of the virus or a different respiratory disease, Van Ranst said.
“It is unlikely but not impossible,” he said.
Separately on Friday, Public Health England said B.1.621 had shown signs of evading the immune response triggered by either COVID-19 vaccines or previous infection.
PHE has labelled the variant “under investigation” but has not declared it a “variant of concern” – a designation that can trigger strong policy responses.
“There is preliminary laboratory evidence to suggest that vaccination and previous infection may be less effective at preventing infection with (B.1.621),” it said, adding there had been 37 confirmed cases of the variant in England.
“However, this data is very limited and more research is required. There is no evidence to suggest that (it) is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant.”
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