COVID-19 epicenter again: Europe faces fresh reckoning

A picture taken on June 16, 2021 in Brussels shows a passeport behind a mobile phone whose screen bears a EU Digital COVID-19 certificate. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

STOCKHOLM / LONDON / RIO DE JANEIRO / AMSTERDAM / MILAN – Europe has become the epicenter of the pandemic again, prompting some governments to consider re-imposing unpopular lockdowns in the run-up to Christmas and stirring debate over whether vaccines alone are enough to tame COVID-19.

Europe accounts for more than half of the average 7-day infections globally and about half of latest deaths, according to a Reuters tally, the highest levels since April last year when the virus first swept into Italy

Europe accounts for more than half of the average 7-day infections globally and about half of latest deaths, according to a Reuters tally, the highest levels since April last year when the virus first swept into Italy.

The fresh tumult comes as successful inoculation campaigns have plateaued ahead of the winter months and flu season.

About 65 percent of the population of the European Economic Area – which includes the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – have received two doses, according to EU data, but the pace has slowed in recent months.

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Take-up in southern European countries is around 80 percent, but hesitancy has hampered rollout in central and eastern Europe and Russia, leading to outbreaks that could overwhelm healthcare.

Germany, France and the Netherlands are also experiencing a surge in infections, showing the challenge even for governments with high acceptance rates and dashing hopes vaccines would mean a return to close to normal.

To be sure, hospitalizations and deaths are much lower than a year ago and big variations by country in use of vaccines and boosters as well as measures like social distancing make it hard to draw conclusions for the whole region.

The World Health Organization's latest report for the week to Nov 7 showed that Europe, including Russia, was the only region to record a rise in cases, up 7 percent, while other areas reported declines or stable trends.

Most EU countries are deploying extra shots to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, but expanding it to more of the population and getting shots in teenagers' arms should be a priority to avoid steps like lockdown, scientists said.

The rate of hospitalization for unvaccinated over-60s is also considerably higher than those inoculated.

Still struggling to ramp up shots, central and eastern European governments have had to take drastic action.

Facing its most severe outbreak yet, Latvia, one of the least vaccinated countries in the EU, imposed a four-week lockdown in mid-October.

Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia have also tightened restrictions. The Czech cabinet will consider whether fresh measures are needed on Friday.

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Brazil

Brazil on Thursday registered 188 deaths from the COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, raising the death toll to 610,224, the ministry of health said.

In the last 24 hours, tests detected 15,300 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total caseload to 21,924,598.

The figures released Thursday do not include data from the states of Ceara and Goias, according to the ministry.

In the past seven days, the country has registered an average of 222 deaths and 10,780 new cases a day.

Brazil has the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, surpassed only by the United States.

This file photo taken on June 11, 2021 shows the entrance of the European Medicines Agency headquarters in Amsterdam. (FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

EU

Europe's drug regulator has recommended two COVID-19 antibody therapies – one from American-Swiss partners Regeneron-Roche and another from South Korea's Celltrion, as the region builds up its defense against surging cases.

Approval by the European Commission would mark the first for any COVID-19 treatment on the continent since Gilead's remdesivir last year.

Regeneron-Roche's antibody cocktail, Ronapreve, was backed by the European Medicines Agency's human medicines committee for treating adults and children over 12 with COVID-19 who do not require oxygen support and are at high risk of severe disease.

Celltrion's Regkirona was recommended only for adults with similar conditions.

Ronapreve can also be used for preventing COVID-19 in people over 12 weighing at least 40 kilograms, the EMA said.

The two treatments are based on a class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies that mimic natural antibodies produced by the human body to fight infections.

While the potential approval process is ongoing, the two drugs are already available to some patients in the European Union as the EMA assisted member states on early use in some cases.

German Finance Minister and chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz addresses a press conference on the tax revenue forecasts in Berlin, Germany, on Nov 11, 2021.
(Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Germany

Germany's likely new chancellor Olaf Scholz urged more citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19 on Thursday as the parliament debated new rules to tackle a fourth wave of infections without imposing lockdowns or making shots mandatory for anyone.

The three parties negotiating to form Germany's new government have agreed to let a state of emergency in place since the start of the pandemic expire on Nov 25, despite record new cases as colder weather and more indoor gatherings turn Europe once more into a coronavirus hotspot.

Some German politicians considered the state of emergency, which allows the government to bypass parliament, was no longer necessary given the vaccination drive and the need to create a new normality in Europe's largest economy.

Instead the would-be three-way coalition has proposed legislation allowing existing hygiene measures, such as compulsory face masks in indoor public spaces, to be enforced and tightened – without extending to the lockdowns and curfews deployed in previous waves of infection.

The parties also want to re-open vaccination centers and reinstate free COVID-19 tests, Scholz said in a speech opening the debate on the law in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.

Meawhile, the number of new cases in Germany jumped by 48,640 and the seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people climbed to a record 263.7, according to the latest daily data from the RKI public-health institute.

Deaths rose by 191 to a total of 97,389 as several regions in the country weigh additional measures to curb the fourth wave of the disease. Germany’s efforts at controlling the pandemic have been complicated by a lackluster vaccination campaign, with millions of adults not yet inoculated. Chancellor Angela Merkel said late Thursday that people have a duty to get vaccinated to help protect society.

In this file photo taken on Feb 2, 2021, a needle in a vial of the Moderna Inc COVID-19 vaccine is seen at a vaccination site in Luckenwalde, Germany. (KOPPITZ / BLOOMBERG)

Moderna

Moderna Inc is selling its COVID-19 vaccine to the African Union at $7 a dose, much less than the price other countries paid for the shot earlier this year.

Moderna’s vaccine was seen as one of the more expensive shots, with the company’s CEO having given a range of $25 to $37 per shot for the two-dose vaccine.

Meanwhile, Moderna held a brief conference call to defend the safety of its COVID-19 shot from a barrage of questions about associated heart risks in young people.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton acknowledged on the call that the company’s COVID-19 vaccine does appear linked to increased chances of an inflammatory heart condition known as myocarditis in young men. Moderna maintains that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh the extremely rare risk of myocarditis, he said Thursday.

Netherlands

The Netherlands will impose Western Europe's first partial lockdown since the summer this weekend, in a bid to stop a surge in COVID-19 cases, Dutch broadcaster NOS said on Friday.

Bars, restaurants and non-essential stores will be ordered to close at 7 pm for at least three weeks starting Saturday, NOS said, citing government sources.

People will be urged to work from home as much as possible, and no audiences will be allowed at sporting events in the coming weeks. Schools, theatres and cinemas would remain open.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte's cabinet will take a final decision later on Friday, and will announce the new measures during a televised press conference scheduled for 18:00 GMT.

In this file photo taken on Jan 7, 2021,
early morning commuters on Stockholm's metro wear face masks as a recommendation came into effect from the country's public health agency to wear the coverings during the morning and evening rush hours in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Sweden

Sweden has seen a sharp decline in COVID-19 testing this month, just as much of Europe contends with surging infection rates, after its health agency said vaccinated Swedes no longer need get tested even if they have symptoms of the disease.

The stance by the health agency has rekindled criticism the country has once again broken ranks with its neighbors and has led to some of Sweden's regions no longer providing free testing for all.

COVID-19 testing fell by 35 percent last week compared to a month earlier. That places Sweden in the bottom of the European Union along with countries like Germany, Spain, Poland and Finland, according to Our World in Data.

The health agency argues the resources for testing could be better used elsewhere and that there is no need to test those who are fully vaccinated as they have a low risk of getting sick and are less likely to spread the disease.

However, the timing of the decision, just as Europe is heading in to the winter season, has baffled some scientists. One recent newspaper column said, "Sweden is once again in the dark" about the spread and ability to break disease chains.

UK

Britain on Thursday registered 42,408 new COVID-19 infections and 195 coronavirus related deaths, bringing the total loss of lives to 142,533 in the country, according to the latest official figures.

The death toll only includes people who died within 28 days of their first positive test.

The infections have fallen by 12 percent over the last seven days, and the number of deaths has decreased by 4.4 percent.

There are currently 8,767 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

Ukraine

Ukraine's health ministry has proposed expanding the list of occupations for which COVID-19 vaccinations will be compulsory to cover medical personnel and municipal employees, it said on Thursday.

The government already obliges teachers and employees of state institutions and local governments to receive vaccinations, without which they face being suspended from work.

The new list of roles that will require vaccination will include medical staff, municipal workers and employees of municipal companies, health minister Viktor Lyashko said.

Ukraine has registered record coronavirus cases and deaths in recent weeks, and the government has imposed strict lockdowns and promoted vaccination in an attempt to fight back.

In this file photo taken on Sept 21, 2021,
a health care worker awaits those wanting the COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile clinic hosted by McDonald's and the California Department of the Public Health in Los Angeles, California. (FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP)

US

Hospitals in some parts of the US are already starting to see the impact of an autumn wave of COVID-19 infections, the latest sign that the health-care system still faces serious pressure from the virus, even in places that have achieved relatively high vaccination rates.

Intensive-care beds occupied by COVID-19 patients are climbing in 12 states from two weeks earlier, with most of them in a contiguous strip running from Arizona and New Mexico, through the Great Plains and into Minnesota. In several Western states, many doctors and nurses haven’t caught their breath from the last round of infections.