Europe and central Asia again at the epicentre of the pandemic
WHO/Europe, 4 November 2021
Statement by Hans Kluge:
“Good morning, good afternoon,
Today, every single country in Europe and central Asia is facing a real threat of COVID-19 resurgence, or already fighting it. The current pace of transmission across the 53 countries of the WHO European Region is of grave concern. COVID-19 cases are once again approaching record levels, with the more transmissible Delta variant continuing to dominate transmission across Europe and central Asia.
Last week, with nearly 1.8 million new cases and 24 000 new deaths reported, Europe and central Asia saw a 6% increase and 12% increase, respectively, compared to the previous week. Over the past 4 weeks, Europe has seen a greater than 55% increase in new COVID-19 cases.
Last week, Europe and central Asia accounted for 59% of all cases globally and 48% of reported deaths. Cumulatively, there are now more reported cases – 78 million – in the European Region than in South-East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western Pacific and Africa combined.
We are, once again, at the epicentre
We see increasing trends across all age groups. Of most concern is the rapid increase in the older population groups since week 38, which is translating into more people with severe disease and more people dying. Currently, 75% of fatal cases are in people aged 65 years and above.
Hospitalization admission rates due to COVID-19 more than doubled in 1 week, based on WHO/Europe’s latest data.
According to a reliable projection, if we stay on this trajectory, we could see another half a million COVID-19 deaths in Europe and central Asia by the first of February next year – and 43 countries in our Region will face high to extreme stress on hospital beds at some point through the same period.
So why have Europe and central Asia been experiencing soaring cases for 4 consecutive weeks? There are 2 reasons: 1) insufficient vaccination coverage, and 2) the relaxation of public health and social measures.
1) Vaccines continue to save thousands upon thousands of lives
Despite near-record COVID-19 cases, new deaths are at approximately half the peak levels. This reflects the life-saving effects of vaccines and the herculean task of health authorities, the health workforce and communities to develop, administer and accept vaccines. One billion doses have now been administered in Europe and central Asia.
Countries of Europe and central Asia are, however, at various stages of vaccination roll-out. On average, only 47% of people have completed a full vaccination series. While 8 countries have now exceeded 70% coverage, in 2 countries the rate remains below 10%.
Where vaccine uptake is low – in many countries in the Baltics, central and eastern Europe, and the Balkans – hospital admission rates are high.
This variation in vaccination coverage reflects several issues around immunization service delivery, as well as a lack of trust and/or complacency among some population groups. It is imperative that authorities invest all efforts to accelerate the pace of vaccination roll-out.
We need to make sure countries with low vaccination coverage among priority groups increase their coverage. Authorities are encouraged to offer an additional dose to moderately and severely immunocompromised people 1 to 3 months after they complete the primary vaccination series, and to consider offering an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine to all people over the age of 60.
In addition, I continue to urge countries to show global solidarity through sharing of doses.
Hospitalization rates in countries with low vaccine uptake are markedly higher and rising more quickly than in those with higher uptake. Most people hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 today are not fully vaccinated.
The vaccines are indeed doing what they were intended to do: preventing severe illness and death.
2) Relaxing of public health and social measures
Vaccines are our most powerful asset – if used alongside other tools. Reliable projections show that if we achieved 95% universal mask use in Europe and central Asia, we could save up to 188 000 lives of the half a million lives we may lose before February 2022.
Testing, contact tracing, ventilation in indoor spaces and physical distancing remain part of our arsenal of defences, next to the rapid, fair and generalized uptake of vaccines by everyone eligible.
These are tried and tested measures that enable lives to continue while controlling the virus and avoiding widespread, damaging lockdowns.
We must change our tactics from reacting to surges of COVID-19 to preventing them from happening in the first place.
In the situation Europe and central Asia finds itself today, I am encouraged to see that over the past 2 weeks, 23 countries have responsibly strengthened social measures. But I am also concerned that 7 have eased up.
Measures should be commensurate with the local epidemiology, but with the widespread resurgence of COVID-19, I am asking every health authority to carefully reconsider easing or lifting of measures at this very moment.
Preventive measures, when applied correctly and consistently, allow us to go on with our lives, not the opposite. Preventive measures do not deprive people of their freedom, they ensure it. In other words, the best way to avoid lockdowns – which are an absolute last resort – is to apply such measures and keep COVID-19 transmission low.
As we enter the flu season, we face the prospect of both influenza and COVID-19 circulating. The same preventive measures work against both viruses, and we have effective and safe vaccines for both.
We are at another critical point of pandemic resurgence. Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic, where we were 1 year ago. The difference today is that we know more and we can do more. We have more tools and means to mitigate and reduce the damage to our communities and society.
The current situation and alarming short-term projections should trigger us to act.
Ultimately, we are only getting out of this pandemic if politicians, scientists and the public work together. We need to stay cautious, act early on any change and stay ahead of the virus.