Emma B. Hodcroft, Moira Zuber, Sarah Nadeau
Nature, vol. , 1--9, 2021
Following its emergence in late 2019, the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)1,2 has been tracked via phylogenetic analysis of viral genome sequences in unprecedented detail3–5. While the virus spread globally in early 2020 before borders closed, intercontinental travel has since been greatly reduced. However, within Europe travel resumed in the summer of 2020. Here we report on a novel SARS-CoV-2 variant, 20E (EU1), that emerged in Spain in early summer, and subsequently spread across Europe. We find no evidence of increased transmissibility, but instead demonstrate how rising incidence in Spain, resumption of travel, and lack of effective screening and containment may explain the variant’s success. Despite travel restrictions, we estimate 20E (EU1) was introduced hundreds of times to European countries by summertime travelers, likely undermining local efforts to keep SARS-CoV-2 cases low. Our results demonstrate how a variant can rapidly become dominant even in absence of a substantial transmission advantage in favorable epidemiological settings. Genomic surveillance is critical to understanding how travel can impact SARS-CoV-2 transmission, and thus for informing future containment strategies as travel resumes.