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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

EXPLAINED: Why Covid cases are rising again in France

France on Monday removed many of its remaining Covid rules, but even before that date case numbers were rising. So why is this happening? And is it something that we need to be worried about?

EXPLAINED: Why Covid cases are rising again in France

“Infections will rise again for 10 to 15 days,” Health Minister Olivier Véran told Franceinfo on Wednesday, two days after the country had done away with the vaccine pass and lifted mask rules in most areas.

“What the modelling of the Institut Pasteur tells us is that it will indeed go up until the end of March, we risk reaching 120,000 to 150,000 infections per day, and then we can expect a decrease,” he went on.

But he insisted the government had made the “right decision” in choosing to end most restrictions earlier than anticipated and in spite of an apparent epidemic rebound, saying “there is no risk of saturation of hospitals“.

So what’s happening?

Cases

Daily Covid numbers in France reached record highs in January, when an average of more than 366,000 new cases a day were recorded.

Current figures are well below that, but still high. On Tuesday, France reported more than 116,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours – a marked rise on the figure of 93,050 recorded the same day a week previously, and breaking the 100,000 barrier for the first time since mid-February.

The daily average figure – which irons out statistical quirks such as delayed reporting at weekends – is 65,143, a 25 percent increase on the previous week.

Map: Covidtracker.fr

“More than 50 percent” of new cases are due to the sub-variant of Omicron, BA.2, which is “more transmissible” but less severe, the Conseil scientifique said. 

Hospitalisations

The number of people being hospitalised with the virus has started ticking up again, after falling from a peak of 2,900 per day in early February. On March 13th, there were 973 new patients in hospital.

“High vaccination rates have made it possible to limit the hospital impact of these infections,” the Conseil said.

But about 4 million adult people remain unvaccinated and almost 5 million have not had a booster dose.

“The number of hospitalisations will increase temporarily in the coming weeks,” it added.

Admissions to intensive care and death rates both continue to decline, but usually any effect on these figures is not felt until at least two weeks after case numbers begin to rise.

European trend

France is not the only country that is seeing an uptick in cases, Germany, Austria, the UK, Belgium and Italy have all reported rises in recent days.

School holidays

Since the relaxation of the French rules only happened on Monday, it is clearly not the source of the increase.

Rather, regional variations in the spread of the virus indicates that schools reopening after the winter holidays has been a key driver of the latest rise in infections.

Schools in France are divided into three zones and take their February holiday at different times.

Guillaume Rozier, founder of the CovidTracker website, told AFP at the weekend. “The rise in cases is most apparent in northern France and along the Mediterranean coast, roughly corresponding to the areas where children returned to school earliest (on February 21st).”

Upticks in Covid figures have been spotted, too, in zones A and C, which returned to class later.

Spring

“The current cold climate remains an element that favours viral transmission. This should improve in the coming weeks with the arrival of the good weather,” says the Conseil scientifique.

As the weather improves and temperatures rise, socialising and activities tend to move outdoors, where the transmission risk is lower. This follows the pattern also seen in 2020 and 2021 when the virus receded in the summer, before returning in autumn.

Not a wave

“This rebound is not a wave,” says Véran. However he added: “The end of the obligation does not mean the end of vigilance. I invite French women and men to wear the mask in all circumstances which may expose them or those around them to the risk of infection.”

Institut Pasteur forecasts published on March 10th suggest that “in all the scenarios explored, the peak of cases [in March] remains much lower than the peak in January”. 

Experts are also confident that the combination of vaccinations and immunity because of previous infection will keep serious cases to a minimum.

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