Copenhagen, 14 January 2021
Statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe – Russian Press Briefing
First and foremost, I wish you a happy and healthy new year for 2021.
We were prepared for a challenging start to 2021 and it has been just that. One year from WHO’s first news report about this virus, we have new tools at our disposal and considerably more knowledge, but we remain in the grip of COVID-19, as cases surge and we tackle new challenges brought by the mutating virus.
This moment represents a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic – where science, politics, technology and values must form a united front, in order to push back this persistent and elusive virus.
The WHO European Region saw over 26 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and over 580 000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in 2020.
As we enter 2021, over 280 million people across the WHO European Region are living in countries under full national lockdown with more countries set to announce lockdown measures in the coming week. Transmission across the Region has been sustained at very high rates of infection.
Where there are signs of stabilization or even decreased incidence in some countries, this needs to be taken with some caution. The impact of the holiday period, of gatherings of families and communities, and any relaxation of physical distancing and mask wearing behaviour for example, cannot yet be determined. Testing and notification activities may have also been lower during the festive season, resulting in an incomplete picture of the current epidemiological situation.
2021 brings with it new opportunities and tools (such as the vaccine) but also new challenges posed by the virus itself.
Like all viruses, as it has circulated, the COVID-19 virus has changed over time. I do understand the concern around the possible impact of the SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern 202012/01 on our shared public health with 25 countries in the European Region, including Russia, reporting the new strain.
This variant is “of concern” as it has increased transmissibility. So far, we understand there is no significant change to the disease this variant produces, meaning the COVID-19 is not more, nor less, severe. It spreads across all age groups, and children do not appear to be at higher risk.
With increased transmissibility and similar disease severity, the variant does, however, raise alarm: without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurized health facilities.
This is a concerning situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done, and intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries. It’s the basic measures, with which we are all familiar, that need to be intensified to bring down transmission, lift the strain on our COVID-19 wards, and save lives. Adhering to generalized mask wearing, limiting social gathering numbers, physical distancing and hand-washing, coupled with adequate testing and tracing systems, proper support for quarantine and isolation, and increasingly vaccination, will work if we all get involved.
We continue to advocate for countries to increase the genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 viral isolates and share this data accordingly. Solidarity in science across our region is vital as we mobilize our efforts and better control the virus’s spread.
Today the IHR Emergency Committee will reconvene to also discuss measures relating to new variants. We will continue to provide updates as this process unfolds.
Amid these new challenges we are following reports of roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine
Ninety-five per cent of the 23.5 million doses of vaccines administered globally have been administered in 10 countries. I can reassure you that WHO and partners are making huge efforts to get the vaccines into every country; we need every country capable of contributing, donating and supporting equitable access and deployment of the vaccines, to do so. Collectively, we simply cannot afford to leave any country, any community behind.
To date, 31 countries in the WHO European Region have started rolling out vaccination campaigns. Given the limited supply of vaccines, however, and the increasing burden on our health systems, prioritization of vaccination of our health workforce and the most at-risk in our communities is vital. Their courage and sacrifice over the last few months can not be forgotten; it is time to protect and support the frontline workers with the new tools we have.
Be it vaccine allocation and prioritization, access to medical supplies and tests, our public health measures and policies to control the pandemic, we have a responsibility to base decisions on the core values that are at the heart of humanity: solidarity, equity and social justice. It is the only way out of these uncertain times because no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Thank you very much.”