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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

EXPLAINED: Why is Italy’s coronavirus infection rate rising again?

After Italian health ministry data showed Covid cases are on the increase for the first time in weeks, why is this happening and is it likely to continue? Here's what Italy's health experts say.

EXPLAINED: Why is Italy’s coronavirus infection rate rising again?

The number of Covid cases detected in Italy has been falling for the last five weeks. But it began to rise again in early March, according to the latest data published by the Higher Health Institute (ISS) and the health ministry on Friday.

“During this week there was an inversion in the trend of the Covid-19 curve in Italy,” confirmed ISS President Silvio Brusaferro as he presented the data at a press conference. 

“In recent weeks it has been decreasing. Last week the decrease slowed down, and this week we are witnessing a curve that begins to rise again”.

The increase came despite the fact Italy has strict health measures in place including the requirement to show proof of vaccination or recovery under ‘super green pass’ rules, and a mask mandate for all indoor and some outdoor public places.

In the last two weeks, the incidence of Covid infections in around half of all Italian provinces has stalled or risen, health ministry data showed.

The number of known current positive cases is once more nearing a million, and the weekly incidence rate has risen to 510 cases per 100,000 people, up from 433 the previous week.

On Monday, official data showed new cases were up by 30 percent week-on-week, while the test positivity rate is 14.1 percent.. 

Giovanni Rezza, the health ministry’s director of prevention, confirmed that hospitalisation rates are still decreasing for now.

“Regarding the occupancy rate in the hospital wards and intensive care, we are at 12.9 percent and 5.5 respectively,” he said at Friday’s press conference.

People wearing face masks at the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The Italian government eased the requirement to wear masks outdoors after a decline in the number of Covid-19 cases in February, but the rule still applies in some settings. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Though Italy’s health experts are urging people to remain cautious, they stress that it is too early to know whether the situation is likely to worsen further.

“There is no reason for us to be alarmed ahead of time”, immunologist Sergio Abrignani, a member of the government’s scientific advisory board, told newspaper Corriere della Sera on Monday. 

The increase in cases is due to “a series of factors”, he said, “and it is not guaranteed that it will persist.”

Nino Cartabellotta, president of Italy’s evidence-based medicine foundation Gimbe, said it would take “7-10 days” to see whether this is truly a reversed trend or “just a rebound”.

“We now have a fairly high circulation of the virus. We still have a million positives and 40,000 cases per day,” he cautioned in an interview with Radio Cusano Campus. “There is no doubt about this. But the element of concern is that the descent has stopped and there are also hints of an ascent”.

Experts attributed the rise to several factors, including colder weather, and decreased caution as people look ahead to the planned end of certain health measures in Italy.

Decreasing vaccination rates are also thought to be a major factor, as well as new “sub-variants” of coronavirus, Brusaferro noted at the press conference.

“Omicron sub-variants, such as 2, the most transmissible, are growing,” he said.

Cartabellotta also said the rise may be due to “the sub-variant Omicron 2 , of which we know nothing” as well as the recent spate of very cold weather meaning “we are more indoors where the virus spreads more”. 

He said the rise was also connected to public behaviour, with Italy now looking ahead to a promised relaxation of the health measures – even though the government is yet to confirm details of the plan.

Italy eased some measures in early February, including the requirement to wear a mask in all outdoor public places.

“In Italy the increase in Covid cases is linked to a series of factors, including a certain relaxation on the part of the population, coinciding with the end of the state of emergency – which has been sold, even though it is a deadline of a purely regulatory nature, as a sort of watershed”.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi confirmed in late February that the country’s state of emergency – the condition that allows the government to pass emergency laws by decree – will end on March 31st, after more than two years.

This doesn’t automatically mean the end of health measures in Italy. However, Draghi also confirmed that ‘super green pass’ rules would be lifted “gradually” from April.

The government is expected to give further details of plans for easing the rules on Thursday, March 17th.

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