Population too low for Estonian COVID-19 strain to develop

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North Estonia Medical Center during the COVID-19 cases. Source: North Estonia Medical Center (PERH)

While the widespread of COVID-19 in a specific region is a favorable factor to the development of new variants of the virus, Estonia's low population is likely to keep a new strain from developing, ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" reported on Sunday.

The so-called British strain of COVID-19 is now estimated to make up 70 percent of all coronavirus cases in Estonia, the Health Board said. According to the board's deputy director Mari-Anne Härma, the strain has shown itself capable of becoming dominant in a very short span of time.

"We were talking about cases being brought in via travel in the start of January, now in the recent two-three months, the British strain is making up most of the cases spreading in Estonia," Härma noted.

Andres Merits, a virology professor at the University of Tartu, said the transmission of the British strain is more effective than previous variants and it is also the reason why it is taking over.

There have also been 18 cases of the South African variant found in Estonia, of which 17 have been brought in from either Tanzania or Spain. Arkadi Popov, chief of the West Tallinn Central Hospital, is fearful of the variant since the AstraZeneca vaccine has not proven its effectiveness against the strain so far.

"It would certainly be an unpleasant surprise, because the South African virus has greater transmission than others. At the same time, it is not deadlier, at least based on the data we have today. And it spreads faster among young people," Popov said.

Could an Estonian variant eventually develop?

Merits said while the extensive spread of the virus is suitable for the development of a new strain, it would likely need more people than Estonia has.

"The population of Estonia is lower, which is why the likeliness of the development of mutations is smaller. As much as I have been able to analyze the virus, mutations develop at lower effectiveness than the influenza virus, for example," the virology professor said.

The Health Board has said the spread of coronavirus is slowing down in Estonia, but a drop in infection rates is not expected for at least a couple of weeks. At the same time, hospitals in northern Estonia are under great pressure.

Popov said 90 percent of Tallinn's hospitals beds are occupied and hospitals are working at capacity. He added that additional restrictions depend on how hospitals can handle the burden.

"If we see that infection trends downward and hospitals can manage, these restrictions are enough. If not, then we must consider stricter restrictions to control the situation," Popov said.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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