Hans Kluge, director of Europe, says the rapid spread of new variants is a source of concern
Europe is at a turning point in the pandemic’s development, according to the World Health Organisation, which warns that the coronavirus is spreading very rapidly across the continent and the introduction of a new strain has created a “alarming situation.”
Hans Kluge, WHO Director for Europe, said that while the introduction of vaccines provided ‘new tools’ to battle the virus, almost half of the 53 countries in the region recorded a 7-day incidence rate of more than 150 new cases per 100,000 individuals, while a quarter of the countries reported a rise in cases of more than 10% in the last week.
Kluge said that between the first and second doses, countries adopting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine should be versatile and that a balance should be struck between taking advantage of the limited supply and protecting as many citizens as possible.
Some nations, including the United Kingdom, are attempting to tackle the low availability of vaccines by extending the time to up to 12 weeks between the first and second doses and suggesting lower doses of some vaccines. It is crucial that such a decision reflects a healthy trade-off between the current limited global production capacity and the need for policymakers to protect as many people as possible while at the same time reducing the pressure on health systems from a subsequent wave,’ he said.
Scientists have sparked fierce controversy with plans to increase the time between the first and second doses. Both Pfizer and BioNTech warn that if the second dose is administered more than 21 days after the first, they have no proof that their vaccine will continue to protect them.
Siddhartha Datta of the Department of Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Immunization of the WHO said the organization recognizes that certain nations face “exceptional circumstances,” but “strongly advised to…” are those who want to prioritize the first dose. Consider robust proof of the ramifications.
More than 580,000 covid deaths were registered in the European region in 2020, while the 27 countries in the EuroMOMO excess mortality monitoring project announced a threefold increase in excess deaths compared to 2018 and a fivefold increase compared to 2019.
In some countries, indicators of stabilization or even a decrease in incidence “need to be viewed with some caution” because the effect of the holiday season, with its family reunions and relaxed physical separation, is not yet understood, Kluge said.
More than 230 million people live in countries under complete national lockdown in the region, he said, and more countries will announce new steps in the coming week, as the more infectious variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, raises rising alarm.
In 22 European countries, the mutation has been detected, Kluge said, adding that although the disease itself does not appear to be dramatically altered – meaning it is ‘neither more nor less severe’ – its greater transmissibility is a concern.
“In our estimation, it could displace other lineages over time, as has been seen in the United Kingdom and increasingly in Denmark,” he said. Without increased control to slow its spread, he said, the effect on already failing health systems will increase.
“This is an alarming situation,” he said. “For a short period of time, we need to do more than we’ve been doing and intensify public health and social interventions to be sure we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries.”
In order to minimize transmission, reduce the pressure on Covid 19 wards and save lives, simple steps such as wearing masks, restricting social gatherings, physical distancing and hand washing, along with testing, tracing and quarantine, need to be strengthened.
Kluge said progress has been “inconsistent but promising,” in the implementation of the Covid vaccines, adding that the limited supply of vaccines and increased burden on hospitals means that health care workers and at-risk groups “must be prioritized” for vaccinations to prevent a collapse of health systems.
Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer of WHO Europe, said that whilst trials are underway, “at the moment there is no evidence”