Virus rages in Europe as epicentre shifts

While most of the new daily cases reported are among the unvaccinated, breakthrough infections and hospitalisations are being reported in the fully vaccinated too. However, the deaths have predominantly been among the unvaccinated.

With the staggering increase in the number of daily fresh coronavirus cases and deaths in many countries in Europe, the continent has for the second time become the pandemic epicentre; the last time was in mid-March last year. The resurgence in daily new cases in Europe which began in early October and restricted to three countries has since spread to most countries. It is driven by the Delta variant.

The continent reported nearly two million new cases last week, the highest since the pandemic began, and more than half of the global COVID-19 deaths this month were in Europe. For some countries such as Austria, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Norway the daily cases now being reported are the highest since the pandemic began; countries like Romania and Ukraine reported record high numbers a few weeks ago.

With hospitals fast filling up, the WHO predicts that there would be extreme stress on hospital beds and intensive care units in many of the European countries between now and March next year. While the vaccination rates in most countries in western Europe are higher, with Ireland leading the table with over 90% adults being fully vaccinated, the vaccination levels are relatively lower in eastern Europe.

Mandatory vaccination in Austria

With France setting an example, many countries are now making it difficult for the unvaccinated to freely travel or enter certain public or even work places, in an attempt to increase vaccine uptake. And in a first, Austria has made vaccination mandatory starting February next year and went into a national lockdown for three weeks from November 22. Austria has managed to fully vaccinate about 65% of eligible population, which is one of the lowest rates in western Europe.

While most of the new daily cases reported are among the unvaccinated, breakthrough infections and hospitalisations are being reported in the fully vaccinated too. However, the deaths have predominantly been among the unvaccinated.

WHO Europe bats for boosters

Even while the WHO has called for a moratorium on booster doses till this year-end so vaccines become available to developing countries, the WHO office in Europe has endorsed administering booster doses as a “priority” to most vulnerable populations; the endorsement is based on growing evidence of a decline in protection against infection and mild disease among the fully vaccinated.

As evidence from across the world has shown, vaccines alone will be insufficient to break the transmission chain and end the pandemic. Unfortunately, most Western countries focussed primarily on increasing vaccination coverage while foregoing simple yet highly effective non-pharmaceutical interventions such as universal mask wearing, physical distancing and improved ventilation in confined spaces.

A study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, predicts 0.9 million more hospitalisations and 0.3 million additional deaths in 19 European countries where people have been neither infected nor vaccinated. The WHO predicts 0.7 million more deaths by March 2022 in Europe and central Asia.

Compliance with public-health measures can indeed avoid needless infections and deaths.

Published in The Hindu on November 25, 2021

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