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COVID-19

‘Tipping point’: Why European countries are alarmed by new Covid-19 variants

The World Health Organization has warned European countries they need to do more to deal with the alarming situation brought on by recently discovered variants of the novel coronavirus.

'Tipping point': Why European countries are alarmed by new Covid-19 variants
How concerned should Europe be by the spread of a new Covid-19 variant? AFP

The World Health Organization's European branch on Thursday said more needed to be done to deal with the alarming situation brought on by a recently discovered variant of the novel coronavirus.

Speaking at a press conference, the WHO's regional director for Europe Hans Kluge (pictured below), called the current situation “a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic,” as Europe was both challenged by surging cases and new variants of the virus causing Covid-19.

“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries,” Kluge said, referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK.

While it is natural for viruses to change over time and the variant is not believed to cause more severe symptoms, its “increased transmissibility,” means it still raises concern, according to WHO Europe.

AFP

“Without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurised health facilities,” Kluge said.

The variant has caused concern around Europe including:

Denmark 

The Covid-19 risk level in Denmark is now at the maximum level 5 with PM Mette Frederiksen saying the move was due in part to concerns about the new variant first detected in the UK. Level 5 indicates “widespread infection in society”, as well as “a risk that treatment capacity at hospitals will be exceeded”. 

As of January 5th at least 86 cases of the variant have been found by Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI), which genetically sequences a large number of samples from positive Covid-19 test swabs to identify the variant of the virus present.

Because SSI sequenced around 11 percent of all positive samples in the last six weeks of 2020, the actual number of people infected with the variant is likely to be around 9 times higher, the agency has said.

Health minister Magnus Heunicke said that the more infectious B117 variant “will” become the dominant form of Covid-19 in Denmark.

France

Initially the spread of the variant anglais, as it is called in France, caused little consternation, partly because France carries out far less sequencing after testing for the virus to identify which variants are at large.

But this week Health Minister Olivier Véran said authorities were now closely monitoring its spread but said only a dozen or so cases of the new mutation had been identified.

“It is a variant that worries us and for which we are deploying very significant logistical and diagnostic resources,” he said.

Two clusters have been identified – one in the greater Paris Île-de-France region and one in Brittany – comprising 19 people and the variant has also been detected on the island of Corsica.

One French scientist sounded the alarm, telling the media France was two months behind the UK in terms of the spread of the new variant.

Sweden

Sweden has now reported 17 cases of the new coronavirus strain first detected in the UK and thought to be more infectious. Of these, 12 cases have a direct link to travel from the UK, but five cannot be linked to travel. 

Public Health Agency's Karin Tegmark Wisell said that this was still not considered as “a general spread in society”, but acknowledged that only around one percent of tests are sequenced, but said “we have special tracks to identify groups where there are greater risks that the variations may exist” such as returning travellers. For comparison, Denmark sequences around 11 percent of its tests, noted public radio show Vetenskapsradion's Camilla Widebeck, who put the question to the Public Health Agency.

One case has also been recorded of the variant first detected in South Africa, which was directly linked to returning travel.

Norway

On January 6th Norway recorded its highest ever number of daily Covid-19 cases – 930 in one day.

An expert told pubic broadcaster NRK that a connection is possible between the increase in daily cases and two new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 that have been detected in Norway after initially being identified in other countries.

Health authorities said on Tuesday that one case of a new variant of Covid-19, first detected in South Africa and more contagious than other forms, has been detected in the Nordic country, along with further cases of the B117 variant first reported in the United Kingdom.

Switzerland

The variants of the coronavirus which were first identified in the UK and South Africa have been detected in several Swiss cantons.

As of January 6th, 28 cases of the variant have been detected in Switzerland, although experts suspect there will be many more cases detected soon. 

Geneva health authorities have said it is likely community transmission of the variants was already taking place in Switzerland.

Austria

As of January 5th five cases of the British and South African coronavirus variants have been discovered in Austria. Austria's Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said there was “very widespread concern”.

Germany

So far, only isolated cases of the variant have been reported in Germany, including in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.
 
However, experts expect the numbers will increase. German scientists stress that the new variant, originally detected in the UK, could make it more difficult to contain the pandemic.
 
Based on available data it seems likely it will soon be the dominant variant in Germany, virologist Jörg Timm from the University Hospital in Düsseldorf told Welt.

Spain

In Span the new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in the United Kingdom has been circulating between people who had not travelled from the UK or been in contact with those who have, since at least mid-December according to new research.

Imported cases have already been detected in Valencia, Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia and most recently Catalonia but preliminary analysis by the Fisabio Foundation research institute in Valencia, also suggested that the same mutation has been found in those with no connection to the UK.

Italy

There was initially widespread concern in Italy about what Italian media called the variante inglese. One case was confirmed in Rome shortly after the Italian government stopped flights from the UK on December 20th.
 
Around a dozen more cases had been detected around the country by December 28th, when a similar strain was found to have originated in Italy.

What measures are proposed to fight new variant?

The measures proposed by the WHO's Kluge were those “with which we are all familiar,” listing the adherence to generalised mask wearing, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distance and hand washing as prudent but in need of being intensified.

These measures coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, “will work if we all get involved,” Kluge said.

The WHO's European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, and 22 countries in the region have recorded cases of the new variant.

According to the organisation's estimates, the new variant could replace others across the region.

Europe has been hard hit by the Covid pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to WHO's monitoring. 

WHO Europe also estimates that excess mortality in 2020 was five times that of 2019 and three times that of 2018.

 

 

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HEALTH

French government calls on over-60s to get second Covid booster as cases rise

As Covid cases show a significant rise in France in recent weeks, the government is calling on all eligible groups to get a second Covid vaccine booster shot.

French government calls on over-60s to get second Covid booster as cases rise

After a 40 percent rise in Covid-19 cases in the last week, the French Health ministry is calling all eligible people – including over 60s and those health conditions – to receive their second booster (fourth dose) of the vaccine.

“It is necessary to redouble our efforts to protect vulnerable people, this is done through vaccination and this campaign of second boosters is absolutely necessary,” said the ministry of health.

The Covid incidence rate is increasing in more than 50 départements across France. Currently, there are an average of 50,000 positive tests per day, which has also been accompanied by an increase in hospitalisations. 

“This is very clearly a reprisal of the epidemic linked to the arrival of new variants of the Omicron family, which are called BA4 BA5,” said infectious disease specialist Anne-Claude Crémieux to Franceinfo. Crémieux added that these variants are faster-spreading.

Therefore, the government is calling on vulnerable people to take their second booster dose (the fourth dose of the vaccine).

So far, only a quarter of eligible people have taken their second booster dose, with an average rate of 25,000 to 30,000 injections per day for the past two months.

“This is not enough, and it is not going fast enough,” urged the Ministry of Health on Tuesday.

The Haute autorité de santé also recently released its recommendation for a vaccination campaign to give a second Covid vaccine booster shot for the wider population, starting in October. 

The HAS recommendation advises starting France’s annual flu vaccine campaign in mid October (mid September for the French overseas territory of Mayotte) and combining it with a campaign to give a second Covid vaccine booster ahead of a possible new wave of Covid in the winter. 

At present although the great majority of the French adult population is vaccinated against Covid with two doses and a booster, a second booster is only recommended for people in high risk groups such as the over 60s and those with long-term health conditions.

The HAS recommendation reads: “At the end of May, the HAS recommended preparing for a booster shot campaign for people most at risk of developing the most severe forms of Covid, and envisaged a booster shot for healthcare workers.

“Those parts of the population most at risk are also those for whom the seasonal flu vaccination is recommended, therefore for logistical reasons the HAS recommends combining the two campaigns.”

The flu campaign is advised to go ahead as normal, starting in mid-October.

The HAS only makes recommendations, the details of policy are up to the government, but it usually follows HAS advice.

The usual seasonal flu campaign in France offers a vaccine for free to anyone in a high risk group, which includes the elderly, people with underling health conditions, healthcare workers and pregnant women – full details HERE on how to get the vaccine.

Those who don’t fit into those categories can still access the vaccine, but must pay for it – €6-€10 for the vaccine and the standard appointment charge to have it administered by a doctor (€25, with 70 percent reimbursed for those with a carte vitale).

The flu vaccine is available from family doctors, midwives and participating pharmacies once the campaign officially launches.

The Covid vaccine is also available from family doctors, midwives and pharmacies, but most of the vaccine centres set up in 2021 have now been closed down.

There is currently no suggestion a return of the health pass, so a second booster shot would be entirely voluntary, but the government has the power to re-introduce such measures if a major wave of Covid hits France over the autumn and winter.

Currently, there are no plans to lower the age minimum (as of now set at 60 years old) for receiving a second booster. Health authorities believe that the immune response after a first booster “continues to sufficiently protect” younger adults.

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