Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland have confirmed cases of the more contagious Covid variant identified in the UK, the latest European countries to do so. The infections were linked to people who had come from the UK.
France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, as well as other places outside Europe, have also reported cases in the past few days.
Scientists say the new variant is considerably more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily any more dangerous for those infected.
Meanwhile, Hungary became the first EU country to start vaccinating people against the disease. The state news agency said the first recipient of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine there was a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital.
Madrid deputy health chief Antonio Zapatero said the confirmed cases in the Spanish capital involved three relatives of a man who flew from the UK on Thursday.
The fourth case concerned another man, who had also traveled from the UK. Mr. Zapatero said none of the patients were seriously ill and there was “no need for alarm”.
He said there were three further suspected cases of the new variant, though test results will not be ready before Tuesday or Wednesday.
Sweden’s health agency said a traveler there was ill with the strain but had been self-isolating since he returned from the UK.
Switzerland identified three cases – two of which are known to be British citizens currently in the country.
Switzerland is alone in Europe in keeping its ski slopes open to tourism over the Christmas and New Year period, and thousands of tourists from Britain have arrived in the last couple of weeks, according to sources.
New variant in France
News of the latest cases came just hours after France confirmed its first patient known to have the new variant.
The French health ministry said the person was a French citizen in the central town of Tours who had arrived from London on 19 December.
The ministry said the man, who had been living in the UK, was asymptomatic, and currently self-isolating at home.
France closed its border with the UK after the new variant was confirmed in Britain but ended its ban for EU citizens on Wednesday, providing people tested negative before traveling.
Thousands of lorry drivers spent Christmas Day in their cabs in Kent waiting to cross the English Channel.
France’s first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations meanwhile was delivered from Belgium to the health system’s central pharmacy just outside Paris on Saturday, AFP news agency reports.
The first shots are due to be administered to patients at two facilities for the elderly – in Sevran and Dijon – on Sunday.
Other countries have also reported cases of the new variant: on Friday, Japan confirmed five infections in passengers who had all arrived from the UK, while cases in Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia were reported earlier.
What is the new Covid variant?
The new variant first detected in southern England in September is blamed for sharp rises in levels of positive tests in recent weeks in London, south-east England, and the east of England
About two-thirds of people testing positive in these areas could have the new variant – but this is only an estimate, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says. Three things are coming together that means the new variant is attracting attention:
It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
It has mutations that affect the part of the virus likely to be important
Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells
All of these build a case for a virus that can spread more easily, says the BBC’s health and science correspondent, James Gallagher.
However, there is no evidence that the new variant is more lethal, and the leading vaccines developed in recent months should still work, experts say.