Covid-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death in Europe, said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
Nearly 700,000 cases were reported this week which is the highest weekly incidence since the pandemic began in March, he said on Thursday.
Kluge said the tightening up of restrictions by governments is “absolutely necessary” as the disease continues to surge, with “exponential increases” in cases and deaths, reports the UN News.
“The evolving epidemiological situation in Europe raises great concern: daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up, Covid-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death and the bar of 1,000 deaths per day has now been reached,” he reported.
Cases reach record highs
Dr. Kluge said overall, Europe has recorded more than seven million cases of Covid-19, with the jump from six million taking just 10 days.
This past weekend, daily case totals surpassed 120,000 for the first time, and on both Saturday and Sunday, reaching new records.
However, he stressed that the region has not returned to the early days of the pandemic.
“Although we record two to three times more cases per day compared to the April peak, we still observe five times fewer deaths. The doubling time in hospital admissions is still two to three times longer,” he said, adding “in the meantime, the virus has not changed; it has not become more nor less dangerous.”
Potential worsening a reality
Dr. Kluge explained that one reason for the higher case rates is increased Covid-19 testing, including among younger people. This population also partly accounts for the decreased mortality rates.
“These figures say that the epidemiological curve rebound is so far higher, but the slope is lower and less fatal for now. But it has the realistic potential to worsen drastically if the disease spreads back into older age cohorts after more indoor social contacts across generations,” he warned.
Looking ahead, Dr. Kluge admitted that projections are “not optimistic”.
Reliable epidemiological models indicate that prolonged relaxing of policies could result in mortality levels four to five times higher than in April, with results visible by January 2021.
He stressed the importance of maintaining simple measures already in place, as the modelling shows how wearing masks, coupled with strict control of social gathering, may save up to 281,000 lives across the region by February.
This assumes a 95 per cent rate for mask use, up from the current rate, which is less than 60 per cent.
Restrictions ‘absolutely necessary’
“Under proportionately more stringent scenarios, the model is reliably much more optimistic, still with slightly higher levels of morbidity and mortality than in the first wave, but with a lower slope – as if we should rather expect a higher and longer swell instead of a sharp peak, giving us more reaction time,” said Dr. Kluge.
“These projections do nothing but confirm what we always said: the pandemic won’t reverse its course on its own, but we will,” he said.
The WHO bureau chief underlined the importance of targeted national responses to contain COVID-19 spread.
“Measures are tightening up in many countries in Europe, and this is good because they are absolutely necessary,” he said. “They are appropriate and necessary responses to what the data is telling us: transmission and sources of contamination occur in homes and indoor public places, and within communities poorly complying with self-protection measures,” Dr. Kluge said.
Europe’s second wave of coronavirus infections has struck well before flu season even started, with intensive care wards filling up again and bars shutting down. Making matters worse, authorities say, is a widespread case of “COVID-fatigue.”
Record high daily infections in several eastern European countries and sharp rebounds in the hard-hit west have made clear that Europe never really crushed the COVID-19 curve as hoped, after springtime lockdowns.
Spain this week declared a state of emergency for Madrid amid increasing tensions between local and national authorities over virus containment measures. Germany offered up soldiers to help with contact tracing in newly flaring hotspots. Italy mandated masks outdoors and warned that for the first time since the country became the European epicenter of the pandemic, the health system was facing “significant critical issues” as hospitals fill up.
The Czech Republic’s “Farewell Covid” party in June, when thousands of Prague residents dined outdoors at a 500-meter (yard) long table across the Charles Bridge to celebrate their victory over the virus, seems painfully naive now that the country has the highest per-capita infection rate on the continent, at 398 per 100,000 residents.
“I have to say clearly that the situation is not good,” the Czech interior minister, Jan Hamacek, acknowledged this week.
Epidemiologists and residents alike are pointing the finger at governments for having failed to seize on the summertime lull in cases to prepare adequately for the expected autumn onslaught, with testing and ICU staffing still critically short. In Rome this week, people waited in line for 8-10 hours to get tested, while front-line medics from Kiev to Paris found themselves once again pulling long, short-staffed shifts in overcrowded wards.
“When the state of alarm was abandoned, it was time to invest in prevention, but that hasn’t been done,” lamented Margarita del Val, viral immunology expert with the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center, part of Spain’s top research body, CSIC.
“We are in the fall wave without having resolved the summer wave,” she told an online forum this week.
Tensions are rising in cities where new restrictions have been re-imposed, with hundreds of Romanian hospitality workers protesting this week after Bucharest once again shut down the capital’s indoor restaurants, theaters and dance venues.
“We were closed for six months, the restaurants didn’t work and yet the number of cases still rose,” said Moaghin Marius Ciprian, owner of the popular Grivita Pub n Grill who took part in the protest. “I’m not a specialist but I’m not stupid either. But from my point of view it’s not us that have the responsibility for this pandemic.”
As infections rise in many European countries, some — including Belgium, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain and France — are diagnosing more new cases every day per capita than the United States, according to the seven-day rolling averages of data kept by Johns Hopkins University. On Friday, France, with a population of about 70 million, reported a record 20,300 new infections.
Experts say Europe’s high infection rate is due in large part to expanded testing that is turning up far more asymptomatic positives than during the first wave, when only the sick could get a test.
But the trend is nevertheless alarming, given the flu season hasn’t even begun, schools are open for in-person learning and the cold weather hasn’t yet driven Europeans indoors, where infection can spread more easily.
“We’re seeing 98,000 cases reported in the last 24 hours. That’s a new regional record. That’s very alarming,” said Robb Butler, executive director of the WHO’s Europe regional office. While part of that is due to increased testing, “It’s also worrisome in terms of virus resurgence.”
It’s also worrisome given many countries still lack the testing, tracing and treating capacity to deal with a second wave of pandemic when the first wave never really ended, said Dr. Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“They should have been using the time to put in place really robust ‘find, test, trace, isolate’ support systems. Not everybody did,” McKee said. “Had they done that, then they could have identified outbreaks as they were emerging and really gone for the sources.”
Even Italy is struggling, after it won international praise for having tamed the virus with a strict 10-week lockdown and instituted a careful, conservative reopening and aggressive screening and contact-tracing effort when summer vacation travelers created new clusters.
Anesthesiologists have warned that without new restrictions, ICUs in Lazio around Rome and Campania around Naples could be saturated within a month.
As it is, Campania has only 671 hospital beds destined for COVID-19, and 530 are already occupied, said Campania Gov. Vincenzo De Luca. Half of Campania’s 100 ICU virus beds are now in use.
For now, the situation is manageable. “But if we get to 1,000 infections a day and only 200 people cured, it’s lockdown. Clear?” he warned this week.
The ICU alarm has already sounded in France, where Paris public hospital workers staged a protest this week to demand more government investment in staffing ICUs, which they said haven’t significantly increased capacity even after France got slammed during the initial outbreak.
“We did not learn the lessons of the first wave,” Dr. Gilles Pialoux, head of infectious diseases at the Tenon Hospital in Paris, told BFM television. “We are running after (the epidemic) instead of getting ahead of it.”
There is some good news, however. Dr. Luis Izquierdo, assistant director of emergencies at the Severo Ochoa Hospital in Madrid said at least now, doctors know what therapies work. During the peak of the epidemic in March and April, doctors in hardest-hit Spain and Italy threw every drug they could think of at patients — hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir, ritonavir — with limited success.
“Now we hardly use those drugs as they hardly have any effect,” he said. “So in this sense we have had a victory because we know so much more now.”
But treating the virus medically is only half the battle. Public health officials are now dealing with a surge in anti-mask protests, virus negationists and residents who are simply sick and tired of being told to keep their distance and refrain from hugging their loved ones.
The WHO this week shifted gears from giving medical advice to combat infections to giving psychological advice on how to nudge virus-weary Europeans to keep up their guard amid “COVID-fatigue” that is sweeping the continent.
“Fatigue is absolutely natural. It’s to be expected where we have these prolonged crises or emergencies,” said the WHO’s Butler.
The WHO this week put out new advice for governments to consider more social, psychological and emotional factors when deciding on lockdowns, closures or other restrictions — a nod to some in the field who say the mental health toll of lockdowns is worse than the virus itself.
That data, Butler said, “is going to become more important because we have to understand what restrictions we can put in place that will be sustained and adhered to, and acceptable to our populations.”
Paul-Ehrlich-Institut (PEI), Germany's Federal Institute for Vaccines and Biomedicines, has approved the third clinical trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
"Trials on vaccine candidates in humans are a significant step in the direction of authorizing safe and efficacious vaccines against COVID-19," PEI noted.
The vaccine candidate was developed by the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) and the pharmaceutical company IDT Biologika.
During the Phase-1 trial, 30 healthy adult volunteers between 18 and 55 years would receive two vaccinations at a four-week interval, according to PEI.
The candidate is a vector vaccine for which the genetic information for a surface protein of SARS-CoV-2 is built into a smallpox virus, according to PEI.
The vaccine against the smallpox virus had already been developed more than 30 years ago at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (LMU).
The vector could not replicate in the body of the vaccinated person, but the genetic information introduced could simulate an infection and trigger the production of COVID-19 antibodies and immune cells.
The German government launched a special funding program to accelerate research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine, with up to 750 million euros (878 million U.S. dollars).
The clinical trial of the vaccine candidate by IDT Biologika and DZIF is one of three trials currently conducted by German companies in the fight against COVID-19.
The pharmaceutical companies BioNTech and CureVac are already conducting studies in advanced phases in trials on humans.
A total of 1,384 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Italy over the past 24 hours, the Ministry of Health said on Thursday.
This compares to 633 new infections on Wednesday and brings the total number of people currently infected to 52,647, according to the ministry, reports Xinhua.
Meanwhile, 1,140 patients have recovered (against 1,198 recoveries on Wednesday) and 24 people have lost their lives (up from 19 fatalities on Wednesday), bringing the overall recoveries to 228,844 and the overall death toll to 35,918.
The total number of COVID-19 infections, fatalities and recoveries since the pandemic officially began here in late February has risen to 317,409 cases over the past 24 hours, the ministry said.
Of the total reported cases over the past 30 days, 50.8 percent occurred among people aged 19-50; 25.3 percent among people aged 51-70; 14 percent among kids aged 0-18; and 9.89 percent among the elderly aged 70 and over.
In the past 30 days, 52.6 percent of the cases were male, according to the National Institute of Health (ISS).
Also on Thursday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza presided over the inauguration of a new COVID-19 vaccine production line at a manufacturing facility belonging to the Italy division of Sanofi S.A., a French multinational biopharmaceutical company.
Countries across the globe -- including France, Italy, China, Russia, Britain and the U.S. -- are racing to find a vaccine. According to the website of the World Health Organization (WHO), as of Sept. 30, there were 192 COVID-19 candidate vaccines being developed worldwide, and 41 of them were in clinical trials.
Speranza spoke about "seven or eight difficult months ahead" as he inaugurated the facility near the city of Anagni in the Lazio region, which also includes Rome, the nation's capital.
"I am certain humanity will win (the COVID-19) challenge," the minister said. "There will be a safe and effective vaccine, and we will have treatments that work."
"Meanwhile, we must continue to use the tools that we have," Speranza said in reference to social distancing, hand hygiene and face masks.
Speranza said that "the priority of our government is to reopen the schools, not to reopen the football stadiums." Italy is still "in a difficult place" with regard to the pandemic, he said, and the government is still being forced to make tough choices.
His comments came after the Genoa FC soccer team on Wednesday reported that at least 15 of its players and staff had tested positive for the virus.
The health minister also said that rapid antigen tests are already provided in schools in some regions of Italy and will soon be available in schools across the country.
Italy's schools reopened on Sept. 14. They were shut down between early March and early May as part of the national lockdown.
Health authorities in Switzerland have ordered a quarantine for a staggering 2,500 students at a prestigious hospitality management school in the city of Lausanne after “significant outbreaks" of the coronavirus that are a suspected byproduct of off-campus partying.
Authorities in Switzerland's Vaud canton, or region, said all undergraduates at the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, known as the Lausanne Hospitality Management University in English, have been ordered to quarantine both on- and off-campus because the number of COVID-19 outbreaks because targeted closures were not possible.
The World Health Organization, national health authorities and others have cautioned that young people, who tend to have milder COVID-19 symptoms than older demographic groups, have been a key driver for the continued spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks, particularly in Europe.
It noted that an early investigation showed that “one or more parties was at the origin of these many outbreaks of infection,” and reiterated authorities previous call for a ”responsible attitude" among party-goers such as by wearing masks, tracing their contacts, keeping alert for symptoms, and “social distancing.”
“Significant outbreaks of infection have appeared at several levels of training, making a more targeted closure impossible that that involving the 2,500 students affected,” the Vaud regional office said in a statement. “Until Sept. 28, the students must stay home. For some, that means not leaving their housing on the hospitality school site.”
School administrators were taking “all necessary measures” to ensure that classes were continuing online, the statement said.
University spokesman Sherif Mamdouh said Thursday that the situation was “not ideal” but that the university took precautions in recent months. He said that 11 students had tested positive for the coronavirus and none required hospitalization.
Mamdouh said the quarantine affects 2,500 undergraduates. The university has a total student body of about 3,500, including people pursuing advanced degrees. He said hundreds of students living in on-campus dormitories on campus will be subject to the quarantine.
Switzerland is not alone. The latest government figures in neighboring France show that 22% of the country’s currently active virus clusters emerged at schools are universities. The United States has also seen clusters linked to college students.
World Health Organization spokeswoman Margaret Harris said that while it is “unfair to just put it on the young people,” it's also unsurprising that teenagers and young adults might assume they don't need to worry about succumbing to the virus.
“Perceptions do indicate that they don't feel they are as at-risk as older groups” Harris said, particularly in the wake of data showing younger people typically have less-severe cases of COVID-19.
“The message they have heard is: ‘You are out of jail, go out and play,’" she said. “We don't want to be the fun police, but we want people to have fun safely.”
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