- Europe is responsible for half of the latest infections and deaths
- Outbreaks fuel fears during winter months, economic impact
- Several countries are considering unpopular curbs again
- Vaccines not the silver bullet, experts warn
LONDON/MILAN, Nov. 12 (Reuters) – Europe has once again become the epicenter of the pandemic, prompting some governments to consider reintroducing unpopular lockdowns ahead of Christmas and fueling debate over whether vaccines only be enough to tame COVID – 19.
Europe is responsible for more than half of the average 7-day infections worldwide and about half of the latest deaths, according to a Reuters tally, the highest level since April last year, when the virus first invaded Italy.
The new uproar comes as successful inoculation campaigns come just before the winter months and flu season.
About 65% of the population of the European Economic Area (EEA) – which includes the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – have received two doses, according to EU data, but the pace has slowed in recent months.
Uptake in southern European countries is around 80%, but hesitation has hindered rollout in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, leading to outbreaks that could overwhelm the healthcare system.
Germany, France and the Netherlands are also experiencing a surge in infections, demonstrating the challenge even for governments with high adoption rates and dashing hopes that vaccines would mark a return to near-normality.
Certainly, the number of hospitalizations and deaths is much lower than a year ago and wide differences by country in the use of vaccines and boosters, as well as measures such as social distancing, make it difficult to draw conclusions for the entire region.
‘DO NOT TAKE THE EYE OFF THE BALL’
But a combination of low vaccination coverage in some parts, declining immunity among those vaccinated early and complacency about masks and distancing as governments eased curbs over the summer are likely to be to blame, virologists and public health experts told Reuters.
“If there’s one thing you can learn from this, it’s not to take your eyes off the ball,” said Lawrence Young, a virologist at Britain’s Warwick Medical School.
The latest World Health Organization report for the week to November 7 showed that Europe, including Russia, was the only region with a 7% increase in cases, while other areas reported declines or stable trends.
Likewise, it reported a 10% increase in deaths, while other regions reported declines.
The bleak outlook is chilling businesses and governments, who fear the prolonged pandemic will derail a fragile economic recovery, especially with transatlantic flights resumed this week and borders reopened.
In Germany, some cities are said to have canceled the Christmas markets again, while the Netherlands could close theaters and cinemas, cancel major events and close cafes and restaurants earlier.
Most EU countries are deploying extra shots to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, but expanding to more of the population and getting shots in the arms of teenagers should be a priority to avoid steps like lockdown, scientists say .
“The real urgency is to increase the pool of vaccinated people as much as possible,” said Carlo Federico Perno, head of microbiology and immunology diagnostics at Bambino Gesù Hospital in Rome.
ALSO PROTECT CHILDREN
The EU drug regulator is evaluating the use of the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech in 5 to 11 year olds. read more
The data justifies the steps.
German figures for the week to 31 October show that, while the majority of cases occur in relatively young people, the majority of hospital admissions are caused by people over the age of 60.
The number of hospital admissions of unvaccinated people over 60 is also significantly higher than that of vaccinated.
Last month, about 56% of COVID-19 patients in Dutch hospitals and 70% in intensive care were not or only partially vaccinated.
“This (outbreak) is likely to make the EU look at booster doses and say ‘we do need them,'” said Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.
The governments of Central and Eastern Europe are still struggling to get more shots and had to take drastic measures.
Facing the worst outbreak to date, Latvia, one of the least vaccinated countries in the EU, imposed a four-week lockdown in mid-October.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia have also tightened restrictions. The Czech cabinet will examine on Friday whether new measures are needed. read more
In Western Europe, Dutch experts have recommended a partial lockdown, the first since the summer in Western Europe. read more
In Germany, a bill would ensure that measures such as mandatory face masks and social distancing in public areas would be enforced until March next year. read more
It reported a record 50,196 new cases on Thursday, the fourth daily record in a row.
Some hold out. Britain relies on booster shots for over-50s to boost immunity, while pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to implement his “Plan B”, which includes mask mandates, vaccine passes and work-from-home orders.
Vaccines alone are not the panacea for beating the pandemic in the long term, virologists say.
Several pointed to Israel as an example of good practice: In addition to inoculations, it has strengthened the wearing of masks and introduced vaccine passports after cases spiked a few months ago.
Measures such as distancing, masks and vaccine mandates for indoor locations are essential, said Antonella Viola, a professor of immunology at Italy’s University of Padua. “If one of these two things is missing, we see situations like we see in many European countries today.”
Reporting by Josephine Mason in London and Emilio Parodi in Milan; Additional reporting by Maria Sheahan in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne
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