Scientists studying the genotype of the virus revealed that Covid-19 had spread widely in Scotland before the first cases were recorded, with it already establishing itself in the country in February as a result of people travelling to and from Italy, Spain and Austria.
The first cases of coronavirus in Scotland were not recorded until March. The study by the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, the West of Scotland Specialist Virology Centre and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, has established the “family tree” of coronavirus as it spread through the Scottish population, and discovered there were at least 113 separate introductions of Covid-19 into the country.
According to infectious diseases Professor Emma Thomson, from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, the spread could have been slowed if governments had taken quicker action to close borders. Quarantine for international travellers only came into force in the UK on Monday.
She said: “The speed at which the virus took hold in Scotland and the UK as a whole following multiple introductions, mainly from other European countries, was extremely rapid.
“It is possible an earlier lockdown from countries with a high burden of cases, such as Italy, and other measures such as quarantine of travellers from high-risk areas, might have prevented escalation of the outbreak and multiple clusters of ongoing community transmission.”
Prof Thomson said the study, which used the full genome sequences from 466 individuals, confirmed that Covid-19 “entered the Scottish population through at least 113 separate travel-related introductions, leading to multiple clusters of sustained community transmission.
“The emergence of continental Europe as the epicentre of the global Covid pandemic was a clear driver of the Scottish outbreak, with the majority of the lineages detected in this study related to European sequences. Cases with links to China and other countries in South-East Asia were comparatively not detected.”
She added: “As the number of cases subside in Scotland, our sequence data can provide a baseline for real-time sequencing of ongoing infections, which can act as a measure for policymakers of the success of current measures and contribute to the easing, or tightening, of public health measures.”
Scotland’s interim Chief Medical Officer, Dr Gregor Smith, said the scientists’ study proved the virus was live in Scottish communities in February, and that the controversial Nike conference in Edinburgh the same month, was no longer the “ground zero” event for introducing Covid-19 into Scotland.
Speaking at the government’s daily briefing yesterday, Dr Smith also said direct further spread from the eight Scottish cases as a result of the Nike conference had not been established.
“This particular sub-lineage of the virus has not been detected in Scotland since towards the end of March. This suggests that the actions taken by the IMT (incident management team) to manage this outbreak were successful in curtailing spread and led to the eradication of this particular viral lineage,” he said.
Dr Smith said not all coronavirus cases in early March could be linked to being brought in from abroad, and added: “What that suggests is that there was some form of community transmission which was under way in Scotland probably during the month of February but it’s difficult to be closer than that.”
He stressed the number of cases in February would have been small.
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