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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 STATS

Germany could still be hit by winter Covid wave, health minister warns

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has criticised states that have loosened their Covid restrictions in recent weeks, as he warned that Germany could be on the brink of another wave.

Germany could still be hit by winter Covid wave, health minister warns

Speaking on Bayerischer Rundfunk Thursday, Lauterbach said he expected Covid infection numbers to rise again over the next weeks.

With Germany “likely at the start of a new winter wave”, Lauterbach said he could not understand states that had started to loosen their existing rules. 

“It feels kind of like a bidding war to see which state can relax their rules first,” he said. “That’s just a little bit populist.” 

Pointing to the some 1,000 people who continue to die each week after contracting Covid, Lauterbach said the existing rules were there to protect people who could not fully protect themselves.

Earlier this week, Bavaria became the second federal state to announce plans to scrap mandatory masks on local public transport, with state premier Markus Söder saying he was “convinced” that the rule could be phased out in either December or January. 

READ ALSO: Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein had already made a similar announcement earlier this month, with the mask-wearing rule due to end in the new year.

Speaking on Bayerischer Rundfunk, Lauterbach dismissed changes to the current restrictions as “reckless” and stressed that the Federal Health Ministry didn’t support plans to relax the rules.

Four states have also taken a further step towards liberalisation in recent weeks by ending the obligation to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid.

Under the current Infection Protection Act, only masks on long-distance transport, in clinics, and in care facilities are mandated on a federal level, while states are allowed to set their own mask-wearing rules on local public transport and in other public spaces.

Pandemic ‘nearly over’ 

While a handful of states look to relax their measures, top virologist Christian Drosten, who sits on the government’s panel of Covid experts, has signaled that the pandemic could soon be drawing to an end.

According to Drosten, the pattern of waves earlier this year show that increasingly small factors are enough to end a slew of infections. At the end of October, for example, a few weeks of summery weather broke the autumn wave entirely.

“The situation for the virus is becoming precarious,” Drosten told Die Zeit. “That is good. It is no longer the case that the virus could completely turn the game around with a few mutations.” 

The Berlin-based virologist said he didn’t expect a more dangerous or deadly mutation of the virus to emerge in the coming months. 

Christian Drosten and Karl Lauterbach

Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology and Charite Berlin, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and RKI chief Lothar Wieler speak at a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Nevertheless, Drosten warned that the winter could be “difficult” if the highly infectious BQ.1.1 subtype became the dominant variant.

Epidemiologist Klaus Stöhr agreed with Drosten’s assessment, telling Bild that the signs were pointing towards a transition from the pandemic to the endemic phase, largely due to the levels of immunity among the population.

New variants and mutations were bound to appear, he said. 

“But that a variant appears that changes the clinical picture enormously or even worsens it and/or bypasses the acquired immune protection – we don’t see that happening!”

READ ALSO: German opposition leader calls for official end to pandemic next year

Uptick in infections

After falling steadily for a number of weeks, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 stood at 187 on Thursday, up from 178 the previous day.

This represents a slight drop from the previous week’s value of 199 and a significant decline compared to last month’s figure of 584.

However, experts say the incidence has become far less meaningful in recent weeks in light of the massive drop-off in testing – and particularly the negligible number of people who are taking PCR tests. 

According to the latest report from the Robert Koch Institute, 1,566 people were hospitalised with Covid within 24 hours, while 164 people died after contracting the virus. 

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