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COVID-19

WHO warns of Europe virus spike as countries impose new curbs

The World Health Organization expressed concern Friday over a coronavirus resurgence in Europe as certain countries stepped up restrictions and rules to battle outbreaks.

WHO warns of Europe virus spike as countries impose new curbs
Testing at airports is increasing in European countries. AFP

The World Health Organization expressed concern Friday over a coronavirus resurgence in Europe as Britain joined France, Germany and Austria in announcing tighter mask requirements and greater testing.

Europe accounts for a fifth of the world's more than 15 million cases and remains the hardest hit in terms of deaths, with 207,118 out of more 630,000 globally since the pandemic emerged in China late last year.

The WHO's European chapter pointed to rising cases on the continent over the past two weeks, stressing that tighter measures may be needed to curb infections.

Europe like other regions is struggling to balance restrictions to halt the spread of COVID-19 against the need to revive economies as they emerge from some of the world's toughest lockdowns.

A three-year-old girl died in Belgium, becoming the country's youngest known coronavirus victim, in a further wake-up call for a continent which has only recently lifted shutdowns.

“The recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in some countries following the easing of physical distancing measures is certainly cause for concern,” a WHO-Europe spokeswoman told AFP.

“If the situation demands, reintroduction of stricter, targeted measures with the full engagement of communities may be needed.”

In Spain, health authorities are already facing worrying outbreaks in Aragon and Catalonia, where officials have reintroduced local restrictions and urged residents in Barcelona and its suburbs to leave home only for essential trips for two weeks.

“We have to monitor what's going on, see where we need to take action and act early,” said health ministry official Maria Jose Sierra.

“If the important outbreaks are controlled quickly and if we manage to ensure that there are no (other) outbreaks of such magnitude, we will have a much more contained situation.”

On-the-spot tests

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday met his top ministers to discuss contagion measures, and his prime minister Jean Castex later announced on-the-spot tests would be required for travellers visiting from 16 high-risk countries including the United States.

In this file photo taken on June 30, 2020 at the airport in Frankfurt am Main shows a view of the laboratory of German biotech company Centogene which opened a walk-in testing centre. AFP

France has yet to resume general travel to and from these countries so the tests will be for French citizens and residents.

Masks are now mandatory on public transport and in shops and enclosed spaces in France but there are fears that the summer holidays could see a spike in cases with people flocking to beaches and tourist spots. 

Britain on Friday made it compulsory to wear a face covering in shopping centres, banks, takeaway outlets, sandwich shops and supermarkets, following the lead of Scotland.

Exceptions have been made, for example, for children under 11 or people with respiratory problems, but anyone refusing to cover their nose and mouth risks a fine of up to Ł100.

Germany will offer free coronavirus tests to all returning travellers in new measures agreed Friday.

Austria also made face masks mandatory again in supermarkets, food stores, post offices, bank branches and health care facilities in addition to public transport and pharmacies.

“It was a mistake to lift mandatory mask use so soon,” said one shopper, Andreas Poschenreither.

Trump convention scrapped

The United States, the hardest-hit country by the virus, recorded more than 144,305 total fatalities. It has seen a coronavirus surge, particularly in southern and western states.

US President Donald Trump has scrapped next month's Republican convention in Florida at which he was due to be confirmed as the Republican candidate for November's election, saying “the timing for this event is not right.”

Bolivia meanwhile postponed its general elections for a second time because of the pandemic, putting it off until October 18, while South Africa said it was closing public schools for a month from July 27.

There was bad news in China and India — the two world's most populous nations — as new clusters emerged.

Chinese authorities said Friday they would introduce a wave of testing in the port city of Dalian, home to about six million people.

The Dalian health commission said the city had to “quickly enter wartime mode”. It announced strict new measures, including on-the-spot nucleic acid tests to detect the virus.

Kindergartens and nurseries have been closed, and some communities have been placed under lockdown, according to state-run newspaper Global Times.

India's death toll overtook France's on Friday with 30,601 fatalities. Officials said there were nearly 50,000 new cases overnight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns in late March, but it has been steadily eased to lessen the devastating economic impact.

State governments have now brought in fresh restrictions as cases soar, including in IT hub Bangalore.

UN projections have warned the virus could kill 1.67 million people in 30 low-income countries.

Virus restrictions have been bolstered in several countries this week, including Australia and Belgium as well as in Hong Kong and the Japanese capital Tokyo.

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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