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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants
An illustration photo of a positive Covid-19 rapid antigen test. Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

Member comments

  1. I just recovered from COVID …. I am completely vaccinated with the two doses and 1 booster shot …. I was scheduled for my 2nd booster in July (6 months after my first booster) but that has been canceled …. I have not had my blood tested to see if I now have the COVID antibody … Am I still eligible for the second booster shot ? Do I have to wait another 6 months before the second booster shot ? Does, having had COVID now preclude me from booster shots ?

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COVID-19 RULES

How useful are Germany’s Covid restrictions?

Protective measures such as wearing a mask correctly and lockdowns can be effective in the fight against Covid, an expert commission in Germany has found. But many questions remain unanswered.

How useful are Germany's Covid restrictions?

The council of experts spent months evaluating the effects of measures imposed by the German government to help slow down the spread of Covid-19.

In the presentation of their findings on Friday, the panel said that measures like mask-wearing have had an effect, and can continue to be helpful against coronavirus.

The council said masks could be “an effective instrument”, but that there are limitations.

“An ill-fitting or not tight-fitting mask has a reduced to no effect,” said the council.

If masks are made compulsory again in the future, this should only apply indoors, because the risk of infection is higher there, the report said. 

However the experts added: “A general recommendation to wear FFP2 masks cannot be derived from the data so far.” Virologist Hendrick Streeck, who is on the panel, said that a “separate commission should look into this”.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules 

On lockdowns, the experts said the usefulness of this measure depended on the infection situation. 

“When only a few people are infected, lockdown measures have a significantly stronger effect,” the report said. The longer a lockdown lasts, and the fewer people are willing to support the measure, the lesser the effect, experts added. 

Similar to to lockdown measures, contact tracing was also found to be effective in the early phases of the pandemic.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The report authors also said that the success of access restrictions, such as the 2G/3G measures (which mean people have to be vaccinated, recovered or tested to enter a public venue), depended on when people had had their jab or had been infected with Covid.

“The effect of 2G/3G measures is high with current variants in the first weeks after booster vaccination or recovery,” the report says. However, the protection against infection decreases significantly over time. 

In the current phase of the pandemic, it’s difficult to assess how useful these rules are, said the council. They recommended that in future, tests should be recommended as a condition of entry, regardless of vaccination status. 

Meanwhile, the evaluation concluded that risk communication in Germany was poorly used and that the information campaign to the public could have been better designed.

No statement on vaccinations

There are measures on which the committee did not make any statements, including vaccinations. Virologist Streek said that was the task of the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO).

The experts were also weren’t clear on the controversial topic of school closures. Their effectiveness is “still open, despite biological plausibility and numerous studies”, the report said. The panel called for more studies on school closures.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

The researchers said that they struggled to evaluate some measures due to poor data, and urged authorities to adopt better methods and practices on that front. 

“We have a poor data situation,” said virologist Streeck. 

As Germany is preparing for possible Covid waves in autumn, the Health Ministry will be looking at the report closely.

But Greens’ health expert Janosch Dahmen said the findings were of limited significance.

“The report provides supplementary evidence, but by no means a conclusive assessment of the effect of Covid protection measures,” said Dahmen.

The completion of the report, which should have been published on June 30th, was delayed.

In the run-up, the head of the council of experts, Stefan Huster, dampened expectations for the report.

“Anyone expecting a list with a plus or a minus behind all the individual measures for ‘effective’ or ‘not effective’ will be disappointed,” Huster told Spiegel. “Our perspective is more fundamental and looks at the structures, in terms of being well prepared for a pandemic.”

The panel, which included scientists and researchers in various fields, was commissioned by the German government to carry out the research.

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