Europe Must take advantage of ‘COVID-19 Ceasefire’ to Prepare for Next Wave, says WHO’s Kluge
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The European Region and COVID-19 are in a “kind of ceasefire,” according to World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge. It is now up to the region’s 53 member states to take advantage of this window to prepare for the next fight, he said.

“It is quiet and we have to take advantage of this, because obviously the fact that the virus spread so fast and so many people have been  infected means that a new mutant is already here,” Kluge said Wednesday during an interview at the Geneva Health Forum. “The virus has surprised us many times.”

Kluge, who started his role on 1 February 2020 just as the pandemic began, spoke via video link from his office in Denmark.

There have been at least 191 million reported COVID-19 infections in Europe and more than 2.2 million deaths since the start of the pandemic two years ago, according to Reuters COVID tracker.

The average new daily cases in the region have dropped from a recent peak of 1.7 million in February to fewer than 230,000 in recent days. However, Germany leads the world in the daily average number of new cases, Reuters said, accounting for one in every six infections reported worldwide. Moreover, as Kluge noted, it is not possible to track how fast the virus is spreading in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion.

Reuters COVID-19 tracker shows a decline in average daily cases across the European region.
Reuters COVID-19 tracker shows a decline in average daily cases across the European region.

He urged the region to implement a pan-European system that could pick up on any threat from antimicrobial resistance, a dangerous virus or climate change “very quickly – we need an alert system.” And he said that the region needs its political systems to take action when there is such an alert.

Kluge also said that the most important ingredient in any COVID-19 toolkit must be equal access to vaccines and affordable antivirals.

“The best way to combat infectious disease is a combination of prevention and treatment: vaccines and medicines,” according to Kluge.

The comments were especially meaningful on Wednesday, a day after the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council announced that it will finally discuss a compromise proposal on a waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines. However, antivirals are not included in the compromise. While Pfizer and Merck – the companies with effective COVID-19 antivirals – have entered into voluntary licensing agreements with the Medicine Patents Pool to enable generic companies to make the drugs for certain low-income countries, the agreements and countries the deal applies to are restricted.

Kluge offered a four-step COVID-19 exit strategy for the region:

1. Implement a plan for protecting the most vulnerable

“We may at some point have to shift from mass action to more routine vaccination of just the vulnerable people,” Kluge said.

2. Vaccinate and boost

“We will need to do whatever it takes to vaccinate the unvaccinated and boost the vaccinated,” he added.

3. Beef up surveillance

“We need a system that is able to pick up new COVID-19 variants very quickly so that national lockdowns can be avoided,” said Kluge.

4. Deal with the backlog of patients with other diseases

Kluge noted that the healthcare sector is also facing a shadow pandemic – dealing with the backlog of patients who are suffering due to postponement of elective surgeries, cancer and other screenings, mental health issues and long COVID. He said around 20% of people infected with the virus continue to experience some symptoms even months later.

“We need more knowledge about long COVID,” Kluge stressed.

But he admitted that rolling out this exit strategy could be “tricky,” as a result of complacency by the public and political leaders whose memories are “very short.”

“Heads of states and governments need to make the investment in health and health systems that is key for a resilient society and preparedness,” said Kluge. “Health is not everything, but without health, there is nothing.”

Image Credits: WHO, Screenshot.

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