As COVID-19 Surges, Europe May Have to Introduce Harsh Measures, says WHO
A French official checks a woman’s COVID-19 certificate, providing evidence of vaccination or a recent PCR test.

It may be too late for many European countries to avoid harsh measures to try to curb the intense transmission of COVID-19, according to World Health Organization (WHO) officials on Friday.

“Almost two million cases of COVID-19 were reported in Europe last week, the most in a single week in that region since the pandemic started,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the global body’s media briefing.

“Almost 27,000 deaths were reported from Europe, more than half of all COVID-19 deaths globally last week.”

High rates of infections are being experienced both in more vaccine-hesitant countries in Eastern Europe, as well as in countries with some of the world’s highest vaccination rates in Western Europe – reflecting the fact vaccinations alone are not enough to halt the virus, according to the WHO.

A number of European countries have already started to clamp down on public activities. The Netherlands is poised to introduce a three-week partial lockdown including a 7pm closing time for restaurants this weeked, while Austria expects to introduce more restrictions on unvaccinated people.

Last month, Russia – part of the WHO Europe region – ordered all unvaccinated people over 60 and with underlying conditions to stay at home until February as it battles its worst case load amid vaccine hesitancy.

At least 12 European countries including Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Greece and Belgium now require people entering public places such as restaurants, museums and concernts to show proof of vaccination or a recent test with a COVID digital certificate, with Denmark being the most recent to introduce such a measure this week. Some countries are also applying the passes in workplaces, particularly schools and health facilities.  

Restrictive measures

“Quite frankly, some countries are in such a difficult situation now that they’re going to find it hard not to put in place restrictive measures at least for a short period of time to reduce the intensity of transmission,” said Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s head of health emergencies.

“Other countries can re-engage with communities around masks, around avoiding crowded spaces, around limiting their contact with others, work from home and many other initiatives and very importantly increasing vaccine coverage in high-risk populations,” stressed Ryan.

However, each country would have to assess their own unique situations – weighing vaccination levels and “what level of compliance can be expected from the implementation of personal measures versus government-mandated measures”, he added. 

Predictable surge after curbs lifted

WHO’s COVID-19 lead, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove described the surge in Europe as “predictable” given that most restrictions on social mixing and masks had been lifted.

However, the European surge was also showing “quite strongly how effective vaccines actually are in terms of reducing hospitalizations and reducing deaths”, she added.

New research from the UK has shown that an unvaccinated person has a 32 times higher risk of death than a vaccinated person, said Ryan, but these vaccines had to reach the most vulnerable people.

Places with high vaccination rates of vulnerable people were seeing cases increase but this had not translated into pressure on health systems. But in countries where there were significant pockets of vulnerable people unvaccinated, the same incidence or even lesser incidence of disease will lead to pressure on the health system, added Ryan.

WHO remains opposed to boosters in Europe

Despite the stiff WHO warnings about the possible need for stricter lockdown measures, WHO officials have continued to recommend against the wider uptake of booster shots in Europe or other high-income countries.

WHO has maintained that there is insufficient evidence for boosters, which also divert vital vaccine supplies from countries that haven’t even yet had one jab.  And on Friday Tedros once again appealed for a moratorium on boosters until the end of 2021, so that available doses can be channelled to countries that have not yet reached the WHO goal of 40% vaccination coverage.  He pointed out that, every day, there are six times more boosters being administered globally than first or second doses in low-income countries.

Even so, it appears that boosters are being administered with ever increasing frequency in high-income countries seeing surges – with 92 high- to -middle income countries initiating booster programmes for at least some population groups.

US Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci recently hailed the successful Israeli booster campaign as a model that others will have to follow. Israel was one of the first countries to initiate mass administration of boosters in August after it became clear that vaccine immunity from the first two shots had waned significantly after five month. The campaign  drove down new infections from one of the word’s highest levels to levels below that of almost any country in Europe or North America today.

There are now signs that boosters are helping to reduce new infection rates and hospitalizations in the United States, although they are only available to people over age 65, and at least stabilise persistently high rates in the United Kingdom, where people over age 50 can now get a third jab.

According to WHO, 25% of the doses administered every day worldwide are now booster doses, as compared to only 5% two weeks ago.

WHO remains mum on COVID-passes requiring proof of vaccination or testing

Resistance to both lockdowns, as well as much milder measures “COVID pass” rules, is strong in a number of European countries. Large protest rallies have taken place recently in a number of Swiss, German and French cities.

In Switzerland a national referendum is planned for 28 of November to vote on whether to maintain the new system of COVID passes required in almost any indoor venue outside of a private home.

Scope of Switzerland’s COVID Pass

In anticipation of the vote, a series of large demonstrations have been underway – protesting the COVID certificates that are the main focus of controversy. French and Italian opponents of COVID certificates also are eyeing the Swiss debate and the precedent that may take shape on referendum day.

WHO has largely recommended against the use of COVID vaccine or PCR test passes for international travel – pointing to the inequalities between rich and poor countries in accessing vaccines.

But it has refrained from entering into the fray over domestic use of COVID certificate in countries where vaccines are universally available.

Asked about the issue by Health Policy Watch, a WHO spokesperson responded Friday evening saying that the organization was “still checking” for a response.

Elaine Fletcher contributed to this story

  • Updated 14.11.2021

Image Credits: Mat Napo/ Unsplash,

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