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COVID-19

Concerns grow in Europe over potential ‘second wave’ of coronavirus as lockdowns are eased

As several European nations begin relaxing their lockdowns following an initial peak in COVID-19 cases, attention is turning to how they can avoid a "second wave" of infections as social distancing is eased.

Concerns grow in Europe over potential 'second wave' of coronavirus as lockdowns are eased
People ride their bicycle through a bike lane in central Milan on May 4, 2020, as Italy starts to ease its lockdown. AFP

Italy and Spain — two of the hardest hit countries — have already started allowing people outside to exercise for the first time in nearly two months, and several US states are allowing businesses to reopen. 

In France, where confinement measures are set to lift on May 11, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said there is a “fine line” between lifting restrictions on movement and avoiding a new surge in infections of a disease that has killed nearly a quarter of a million people globally.

“The risk of a second wave — which would hit our already fragile hospitals, which would need us to reimpose confinement and waste the efforts and sacrifices we've already made — is serious,” he said last week. 

Social distancing has proved effective in flattening the curve of new COVID-19 cases, buying health systems crucial time to recover and regroup. But it has also meant that a very small percentage of populations are likely to have been infected and thus developed immunity.

France's Pasteur Institute estimates that only around six percent of the country's population will have been infected by May 11th.

Even in virus hotspots in France, it is thought that no more than 25 percent of people caught COVID-19 during the pandemic's first wave.

This means that without a viable vaccine, experts say it is impossible to imagine life returning to normal any time soon.

Storekeepers asking for the reopening of shops and commercial activities gather for a flashmob protest on Piazza San Marco on May 4, 2020 in Venice, as Italy starts to ease its lockdown. AFP

Waiting game

“It will take several weeks or even several months to see the virus circulating again” at a high level, virologist Anne Goffard told France Inter radio.

A second wave of infections was likely, she said, “at the earliest at the end of August”.

But while experts are more or less united on the probability of a new spike in cases as lockdowns are eased, there is debate over how the second wave will compare with the first.

Some senior health officials — notably in Germany and the US — have warned it could bring even more infections than the March/April peak. Others are more optimistic that changes in personal behaviour could slow new cases.

Pierachille Santus, a lung expert based in Milan, said the second wave “will probably be smaller than the first” thanks to control measures.

It is not yet known how or if the novel coronavirus will respond to warmer weather. Other viruses tend to go dormant during summer months.

“There's probably a link (between the virus) and heat and humidity,” Jean-Francois Delfraissy, president of France's science council, said Monday.

“We're expecting a fairly peaceful summer,” he said, warning however that the virus could return forcefully towards the end of the year.

Even if businesses can reopen and people return to the streets, there are several ways of slowing the virus spread.

These include keeping your distance from others, avoiding touching your face, washing your hands, wearing a mask while in public — all habits people have, to some extent, picked up during the first wave.

One model run by the Public Health Expertise research group showed that such measures could reduce expected total COVID-19 deaths to 85,000 in France, compared with an anticipated 200,000 with no social distance or mask wearing.

Yet even in the best case scenario of new infections, hospitals are likely to be inundated with fresh patients.

'Mini-waves'

Other vital measures after lockdowns end are testing and contact-tracing — seeking out those new infections and isolating people they have been in close contact with.

Were countries able to ramp up their testing and tracing capacity, “we could have a series of mini-waves,” according to Didier Pitter, head of infection control and prevention at Geneva University Hospitals.

Governments will seek to limit the transmissions rate of COVID-19 (R0) to below one: that is, each infected person infects fewer than one other on average.

A study published last month in The Lancet showed that testing, contact tracing and isolating confirmed infections reduced R0 in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen to 0.4. 

This helped the city avoid an outbreak such as the one that hit Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December.

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POLITICS

Italy’s deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a trained pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.

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