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COVID-19 STATS

Why Europe could be headed for pandemic ‘endgame’

The Omicron variant has moved the Covid-19 pandemic into a new phase and could bring it to an end in Europe, the WHO Europe director said on Monday.

People queue outside a pharmacy to receive Covid-19 antigenic tests
People queue outside a pharmacy to receive Covid-19 antigenic tests on January 10, 2022 in Marseille, southern France, as Covid-19 cases soar in Europe. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

“It’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame,” Hans Kluge told AFP in an interview, adding that Omicron could infect 60 percent of Europeans by March.

In a statement on Monday he added: “We are entering a new phase, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeping Europe, from west to east.”

Once the current surge of Omicron sweeping across Europe subsides, “there will be for quite some weeks and months a global immunity, either thanks to the vaccine or because people have immunity due to the infection, and also lowering seasonality”.

“We anticipate that there will be a period of quiet before Covid-19 may come back towards the end of the year, but not necessarily the pandemic coming back,” Kluge said.

“The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention.”

 

Top US scientist Anthony Fauci expressed similar optimism on Sunday, telling ABC News talk show “This Week” that with Covid-19 cases coming down “rather sharply” in parts of the United States, “things are looking good”.

While cautioning against over confidence, he said that if the recent fall in case numbers in areas like the US’s northeast continued, “I believe that you will start to see a turnaround throughout the entire country”.

The WHO regional office for Africa also said last week that cases of Covid had plummeted in that region and deaths were declining for the first time since the Omicron-dominated fourth wave of the virus reached its peak.

‘Other variants could emerge’

The Omicron variant, which studies have shown is more contagious than Delta but generally leads to less severe infection among vaccinated people, has raised long-awaited hopes that Covid-19 is starting to shift from a pandemic to a more manageable endemic illness like seasonal flu.

But Kluge cautioned that it was still too early to consider Covid-19 endemic.

“There is a lot of talk about endemic but endemic means … that it is possible to predict what’s going to happen. This virus has surprised (us) more than once so we have to be very careful,” Kluge said.

With Omicron spreading so widely, other variants could still emerge, he warned.

The European Commissioner for Internal Markets, Thierry Breton, whose brief includes vaccine production, said Sunday that it will be possible to adapt existing vaccines to any new variants that may emerge.

“We will be able to better resist, including to new variants”, he told French television LCI.

“We will be ready to adapt the vaccines, especially the mRNA ones, if necessary to adapt them to more virulent variants”.

In the WHO Europe region, which comprises 53 countries including several in Central Asia, Omicron now accounts for 31.8% of cases across the European Region, up from 15% the previous week, and 6.3% the week before that. 

Omicron is now the dominant variant in the European Union and the European Economic Area (EEA, or Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), the EU health agency ECDC said last week.

Impact on Europe

Because of the very fast spread of the variant across Europe, Kluge said emphasis ought to be on “minimising disruption of hospitals, schools and the economy, and putting huge efforts on protecting the vulnerable”, rather than measures to stop transmission.

He meanwhile urged people to exercise personal responsibility.

“If you don’t feel well, stay home, take a self test. If you’re positive, isolate”, he said.

Kluge said the priority was to stabilise the situation in Europe, where vaccination levels range across countries from 25 to 95 percent of the population, leading to varying degrees of strain on hospitals and health-care system.

“Stabilising means that the health system is no longer overwhelmed due to Covid-19 and can continue with the essential health services, which have unfortunately been really disrupted for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and routine immunisation”.

Asked whether fourth doses would be necessary to bring an end to the pandemic, Kluge was cautious, saying only that “we know that that immunity jumps up after each shot of the vaccine”.

The pandemic has so far killed nearly 5.6 million million people worldwide, according to official figures compiled by AFP, 1.7 million of them in Europe.

Kluge said: “Every single hour since the pandemic’s onset, 99 people in the Region have lost their lives to COVID-19.

“We mourn the more than 1.7 million people in the European Region who are no longer with us. Gains in poverty reduction have been reversed, with more than 4 million people in the Region now pushed under the 5.50 USD a day poverty line. Children’s education and mental well-being have suffered immensely.”

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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