SHARE
COPY LINK

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
An illustration photo of a positive Covid-19 rapid antigen test. Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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.

Member comments

  1. I just recovered from COVID …. I am completely vaccinated with the two doses and 1 booster shot …. I was scheduled for my 2nd booster in July (6 months after my first booster) but that has been canceled …. I have not had my blood tested to see if I now have the COVID antibody … Am I still eligible for the second booster shot ? Do I have to wait another 6 months before the second booster shot ? Does, having had COVID now preclude me from booster shots ?

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

COVID-19 VACCINES

Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

Even as other countries have started to administer fourth doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and the infections are on the rise again, Swiss health authorities still haven’t rolled out second boosters. This is why, and what lies ahead.

Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

As The Local reported in June, coronavirus is circulating again in Switzerland and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

In fact, over a million people in Switzerland could catch the virus this summer.

“More than 80,000 new contaminations per week” are expected in the next two months, according to Tanja Stadler, the former head of the Covid-19 Task Force — much more than during the past two summers, when the rate of infections slowed down.

READ MORE: ‘Over a million people’ in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

Data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) indicates that the upward trend is already underway. The number of new reported cases has been soaring in the past few weeks — from below 10,000 a week in mid-April and beginning of May, to 24,704 new cases in the past seven days.

These are officially registered contaminations, but as “most of infected people will not be tested, the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler pointed out.

Although nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are more contagious but less severe that the original Covid viruses, “more vulnerable people are likely to end up in hospital, and long Covid cases are also likely to rise”, she said.

What is FOPH’s official stance on second boosters?

Health authorities are currently recommending them only for people in high-risk categories — that is, those with a very weak immune system or people over the age of 80.

According to a press release from July 5th, this recommendation will not change until August. 

There has been no change in strategy since then, despite the increasing infection rates.

The FOPH said these travellers can get “off-label” shots — meaning being vaccinated before the official authorisation to do so is issued — but these doses will not be free of charge.

“The price will be set by the cantons and the vaccination centres”, FOPH said, adding, however, that “second boosters for people with weakened immune systems will remain free”.

Why are Swiss health authorities dragging their feet in authorising second boosters?

According to the government, the risk for members of the general public – i.e. those who do not fit into ‘vulnerable’ categories – is too low to justify a second booster. 

According to the press release from July 5th, three doses of the vaccine is sufficient at present. 

“For all other groups of people who are already fully immunised (vaccinated three times, recovered and vaccinated twice), the FOPH and FCV are still recommending that they wait until autumn for a further booster. On the basis of the current state of knowledge, they are still sufficiently protected against severe COVID-19 disease.”

In addition, the FOPH is taking its time to examine benefits of second boosters for general population (as opposed to at-risk groups).

Part of it may be the uncertainty prevailing over the efficacy of vaccines against Covid variants.

Most of the vaccines were developed to combat the original early strains like Delta, not the variants, and sub-variants, that emerged later.

“The current vaccine does not provide clear protection against the Omicron”, according to Giuseppe Pantaleo, head of the immunology unit at Vaud university hospital (CHUV).

So when will Switzerland authorise second boosters?

On July 5th, the Swiss government said it would begin recommendations for second Covid boosters in autumn of 2022. 

Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) announced that second Covid booster shots for general population will be available in the fall, “when the risk for individuals and the burden on the healthcare system will be greatest”.

While Switzerland had a widespread booster shot campaign against Covid, the government has been reluctant to approve second boosters other than for those in vulnerable categories. 

People who are travelling to countries where proof of up-to-date immunisation is required but whose Covid certificates are no longer valid, can receive the fourth dose but upon request have to pay for the shot.

A spokesperson from the FOPH told The Local on Wednesday that the cost for a second booster tends to be around CHF60 across much of the country. 

SHOW COMMENTS