With peak yet to come, Europe’s healthcare creaks under Omicron

Medical staff wears PPE on a ward for COVID-19 patients at King's College Hospital in south east London on Dec 21, 2021. (VICTORIA JONES / PA VIA AP)

NEW YORK / BRUSSELS / OTTAWA / LONDON / HAVANA / BRASILIA / MEXICO CITY / PARIS / AMSTERDAM / MILAN / NAIROBI / RABAT / FRANKFURT / MADRID / BUDAPEST / ZURICH – Europe's healthcare systems are being strained once again by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus over the holiday period, with large numbers of key staff ill or self-isolating and experts predicting the peak of infections is yet to come.

Despite early studies showing a lower risk of severe disease or hospitalization from Omicron compared to the previously-dominant Delta variant, healthcare networks across Spain, Britain, Italy and beyond have found themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

On Friday, Britain began deploying military personnel to support hospitals experiencing staff shortages and extreme pressures due to record COVID-19 cases in the country.

"Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them," National Health Service (NHS) Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis said in a statement.

In the United States, hospitals are postponing elective surgeries to free up staff and beds, while Spain's primary healthcare network is so strained that on the penultimate day of 2021 authorities in the northeastern region of Aragon authorized the reincorporation of retired medical workers and nurses.

"The exponential increase in cases means primary care can perform neither their contact tracing and vaccination campaign duties adequately, nor their ordinary activities," the authorities said in a statement.

A child receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Principe de Asturias de Alcala hospital en Madrid, on Dec 15, 2021. (OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

In the Netherlands, infection rates are also rising sharply among hospital staff, particularly nurses and nursing assistants, Dutch daily De Telegraaf reported on Friday, following a survey of eight major hospitals.

In the worst cases, one in four tested positive in the run-up to Christmas, as in Amsterdam's University Medical Centre where 25 percent of staff are now testing positive, compared to 5 percent a week ago.

Dutch hospitals are mulling changing their quarantine rules so infected staff who do not have symptoms can come to work, De Telegraaf said, as Dutch daily case numbers break records despite a strict lockdown since December 19.

In Italy, the problem of infected health workers – more than 12,800 according to data gathered last week – is being compounded by the suspension of doctors, nurses, and administrative staff who are not vaccinated and represent just over 4 percent of the total workforce.

With hospitalizations already at their highest since last February, the NHS is likely to be stretched even thinner as COVID-19 surges amongst older people, UK health minister Sajid Javid said on Friday. read more

"We are still seeing rising hospitalizations, particularly with the case rate rising in older age groups. That is of concern," Javid said in a broadcast clip. "I think we have to be honest…when we look at the NHS, it will be a rocky few weeks ahead."

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, during a mass vaccination in Nairobi, on Dec 16, 2021. (SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Africa

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa has exceeded the 10 million mark with the rapid transmission of the Omicron variant, which has surfaced in at least 33 African nations.

Data from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Sunday showed that as of Saturday evening, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa has reached 10,028,508 while the death toll stands at 231,157.

The surge is alarming. It only took less than one month for Africa to record an increase of 1 million new cases since Dec 15, before which it took more than three months to record an additional 1 million new cases on the continent.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of the South African Medical Association, said the highly contagious Omicron, which is more prone to mutation compared to previous variants, should be the one contributing to the rapidly increasing cases.

"The region has low vaccination rates compared to the US or the EU and the issue is concerning. We know that with unvaccinated people, immunocompromised people, and people with underlying conditions, the virus is likely to mutate and result in more variants," she said.

In general, Africa remains the least vaccinated region in the world with only 9.6 percent of its population fully vaccinated by early December. This is compared to the WHO's 40 percent vaccination rate target for the end of 2021.

In contrast, the vaccination rate in developed economies has been far above 60 percent.

With the huge vaccination gap, the term "vaccine apartheid" describes the divide between the world's richest and the least developed countries, especially African countries, in vaccine access.

At the current pace, the WHO estimates that it will take until May 2022 before Africa reaches 40 percent coverage and August 2024 before it reaches 70 percent vaccination

According to the WHO, the continent faces a shortfall of $1.3 billion for operational costs, including cold-chain logistics and travel costs and payment for vaccinators and supervisors, as well as a looming shortage of syringes and other crucial commodities.

"We're at a pivotal moment in this pandemic where complacency is the enemy," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. "With supplies starting to increase, we now must intensify our focus on other barriers to vaccination."

Belgium

A large protest march was staged in the streets of Brussels on Sunday to demonstrate against the latest round of health restrictions, according to local media.

Called "Together for Liberty," this new protest movement rallies together people "to make it clear that we will not tolerate the COVID Safe Ticket," said organizer Ezra Armakye.

"It is not forbidden," said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to Belgian Media group VTM on Sunday. "But there is a very large silent majority doing the right thing."

About 5,000 people took part in the demonstration at the capital's North Station, and more than 30 people were arrested, said the Brussels police.

Belgium has so far recorded more than 2.23 million COVID-19 infections and 28,459 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to data published Saturday by the Sciensano Health Institute.

The numbers were still climbing as the Omicron variant was spreading across the country with about 11.5 million population.

The government has implemented strict rules to curb the spread of the virus, including mandatory use of the COVID Safe Ticket for many public occasions.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a press conference at the Vila Nova Star Hospital after he was discharged, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Jan 5, 2022.  (NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

Brazil

The head of Brazil's health regulator Anvisa has asked the country's vaccine-skeptic President Jair Bolsonaro to retract statements he made criticizing the agency for authorizing the vaccination of children against COVID-19.

In a letter to Bolsonaro made public late Saturday, retired rear admiral Antonio Barra Torres asked the president to back up his statement that there were undisclosed "interests" behind the vaccine decision or else retract his words.

Bolsonaro criticized Anvisa on Thursday for approving the use for children aged 5 to 11 years of the pediatric vaccine made by Pfizer Inc, saying that he had not heard of children dying of COVID-19.

"What is behind this? What are the interests of vaccine maniacs?" Bolsonaro stated in a radio interview.

Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who has bragged about not being vaccinated himself and has consistently cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of coronavirus vaccines , said the shots could have side effects on kids, but gave no evidence.

Anvisa and health regulators around the world have found that COVID-19 vaccines are safe for those from age 5 and up. According to the council of state health secretaries, at least 300 children aged 5 to 11 have died in Brazil from COVID-19.

Brazil has had 24,382 new cases of the novel coronavirus reported in the past 24 hours, and 44 deaths from COVID-19, the health ministry said on Sunday.

The South American country has now registered 22,523,907 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 619,981, according to ministry data.

ALSO READ: Minister: New virus variant 'Deltacron' detected in Cyprus

Britain

There is still pressure on British hospitals and the country is not yet in a position to say it can live with COVID-19, senior minister Michael Gove said on Monday.

Asked how long rapid tests would be provided for free, Gove, who is housing minister, said that they were a vital tool in curbing a pandemic that was not yet over.

"We are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with COVID and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating," he told Sky News.

"But it's absolutely vital to recognize that we are not there yet… there will be some difficult weeks ahead."

Car cross the border into Canada, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on Aug. 9, 2021. (EDUARDO LIMA / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pushing ahead with a vaccine mandate for international truckers despite increasing pressure from critics who say it will exacerbate driver shortages and drive up the price of goods imported from the United States.

Canada will require all truckers entering from the United States to show proof of vaccination starting on Saturday as part of its fight against COVID-19.

That could force some 16,000, or 10 percent, of cross-border drivers off the roads, the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) estimates. The government estimates 5 percent of drivers will be impacted, according to a government source.

The mandate is the first policy measure taken since the pandemic began that could limit cross-border trucking traffic. Trucks crossed the border freely when the border was closed for 20 months because they were considered essential to keep supply chains flowing.

Trudeau has championed a strict inoculation policy for civil servants and federally regulated workers, and the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus appears to have strengthened his government's resolve to stick with the policy.

More than two-thirds of the C$650 billion ($511 billion) in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travels on roads.

People wait during an observation period after having received Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, in a vaccination center, in Nantes, western France on Dec 30, 2021. (JEREMIAS GONZELES / AP)

France

French politician Stephane Claireaux, who is a member of President Emmanuel Macron's ruling La Republique En Marche party, said on Monday that he had been attacked over the weekend by protesters demonstrating against France's COVID health pass.

The attack on Claireaux, which occurred on Sunday, comes amid public anger in France after Macron said he wanted to "piss off" unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Claireaux is member of Parliament for the constituency of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a French overseas territory in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean, near the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I am obviously going to launch a legal complaint. Some people think the right decisions are not being made. We are all receiving death threats by mail, at some moment this has to stop," Claireaux told France Info on Monday.

Germany

Germany will study how reliable rapid antigen tests are in detecting the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Sunday.

"We do not know exactly how well these tests work for Omicron," Lauterbach said on public broadcasting channel ARD, adding the results of the assessment would become available within the next few weeks.

It was clear, however, that "the alternative not to test at all … would be far too dangerous," said Lauterbach, a scientist and physician.

Earlier, he had told a Sunday newspaper that Germany must revamp its COVID-19 vaccination strategy to tackle the Omicron variant and to ensure it can develop a new vaccine rapidly if it faces a more deadly coronavirus variant in the future. New measures for dining out and bar visits were brought in only last Friday.

Omicron now accounts for 44 percent of coronavirus infections in Germany, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious disease said.

On Sunday, RKI registered 36,552 newly reported corona infections within 24 hours, three times the number a week earlier.

Hungary

Hungary's daily tally of new COVID-19 cases could hit a new peak of more than 13,000, with deaths reaching 200 a day, a government minister warned, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant fuelled a rising wave of infections.

Miklos Kasler, minister for human resources who is also in charge of healthcare, told local Inforadio late on Sunday that the government was looking into the possibility of offering a fourth vaccine shot, but more assessments were needed to measure how long immunity lasts after the third shot.

Infection figures for the weekend are expected to be released later on Monday. On Friday, Hungary reported 6,524 new infections, and 39,780 people have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Just over 6 million of Hungary's 10 million people have received at least two shots, and 3.217 million have also received a third booster but the country's vaccination rate still lags western European levels.

A medical staffer takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 rapid test at a testing site in Rome on Dec 30, 2021. (ANDREW MEDICHINI / AP)

Italy

Italy will receive around 40,000 doses of Merck & Co's COVID-19 antiviral drug next week, which will add to nearly 12,000 already distributed to hospitals, the special COVID-19 commissioner said on Sunday.

"They are intended for clinical cases that risk a serious outcome of the disease," Commissioner Francesco Figliuolo told a television program on Italy's RAI 3 channel.

Italy will also get 200,000 courses of Pfizer's COVID-19 drug in February, Figliuolo said, adding that Rome had an option to buy additional 400,000 doses of Pfizer's Paxlovid.

Italy reported 157 coronavirus-related deaths on Sunday down from 184 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections fell to 155,659 from 197,552.

Italy has registered 139,038 deaths linked to COVID-19 since the outbreak in February 2020, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world. The country has reported 7.436 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital with COVID-19 – not including those in intensive care – stood at 15,647 on Sunday, up from 14,930 a day earlier.

There were 142 new admissions to intensive care units, down from 154 on Saturday. The total number of intensive care patients increased to 1,595 from a previous 1,557.

ALSO READ: Virus: UK calls in military to help with hospital staff crunch

Mexico

The first three cases of flurona, a double infection with both COVID-19 and influenza, were detected in Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco, local health authorities said on Sunday.

Nayarit confirmed one of the flurona cases in a 28-year-old woman, according to the state's health secretary Jose Francisco Munguia Perez.

In Jalisco, another two cases were reported, said Alejandra Natali Vega Magana, head of the emerging and reemerging diseases diagnostic laboratory at the University of Guadalajara.

The two patients, she said, did not display serious symptoms, and "were treated on an outpatient basis."

The official said that "flurona is not a novelty" as it had already "been registered in other countries in 2020."

Morocco

Morocco's COVID-19 cases surpassed 1 million on Sunday, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

On Sunday, 4,963 new cases were recorded, taking the national tally to 1,002,084.

The ministry also reported seven fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the death toll since the start of the pandemic to 14,911.

Netherlands

The Netherlands' new finance minister Sigrid Kaag will miss the ceremonial inauguration of the new Dutch government on Monday as she has tested positive for the coronavirus.

"I have tested positive for corona. It will be a slightly different start then I had hoped for", Kaag tweeted on Sunday.

A sign of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis is seen on the top of a building at the company's campus in Basel, Oct 27, 2015. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

Novartis

Novartis said it will license in a new drug it has been developing with Molecular Partners to treat COVID-19, the Swiss company said on Monday, after getting positive trial data.

Novartis will pay 150 million Swiss francs ($162.92 million) to in-license ensovibep from Molecular Partners to speed up its manufacturing ramp up and get approvals for the drug more quickly.

The decision comes after the two companies said they had received positive topline data from a phase 2 study for ensovibep (mp0420), an antiviral therapeutic for COVID-19 that will from now on be developed and manufactured by Novartis.

Molecular Partners had already received an upfront payment of 60 million francs, including equity.

The DARPin (Designed Ankyrin Repeat Protein) antiviral therapeutic candidate met the primary endpoint of viral load reduction over eight days in a study in acute COVID-19 ambulatory patients comparing single intravenous doses of ensovibep versus placebo, the two companies said in a statement.

The two secondary endpoints also showed a clinically meaningful benefit compared with a placebo, the partners said.

Novartis will first seek the approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where it is applying for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

DARPins offer a differentiated approach to treating COVID-19 through a single molecule that can engage up to three parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus simultaneously to neutralize the virus through multiple mechanisms, Molecular Partners said on its website.

Spain

The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Monday it may be time to track the pandemic differently as COVID-19's lethality has fallen, confirming a report from El Pais newspaper that the government was mulling alternative monitoring methods.

"We have the conditions to gradually, with precaution, open the debate at a technical level and European level, to start evaluating the evolution of this disease with different parameters than we have until now," Sanchez said in an interview with radio station Cadena SER.

The Spanish government is considering changing how it tracks the pandemic's evolution to instead use a method similar to how it follows the flu, without recording every case and without testing all people presenting symptoms, El Pais reported on Monday.

A sign about COVID-19 test is displayed at a testing site as people are seen inside for testing in Morton Grove, Illinois on Jan. 9, 2022. (NAM Y. HUH / AP)

United States

The total number of COVID-19 cases in the United States topped 60 million on Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

US COVID-19 case count rose to 60,062,077, with a total of 837,504 deaths, as of 4:21 pm local time (2121 GMT), showed the data.

The United States remains the nation worst hit by the pandemic, with the world's most cases and deaths, making up about 20 percent of the global caseload and more than 15 percent of the global deaths.

US COVID-19 caseload reached 10 million on Nov 9, 2020, crossed 20 million on Jan 1, 2021, exceeded 30 million on March 24, surpassed 40 million on Sept 6, and amounted to 50 million on Dec 13.