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COVID-19

‘Tipping point’: Why European countries are alarmed by new Covid-19 variants

The World Health Organization has warned European countries they need to do more to deal with the alarming situation brought on by recently discovered variants of the novel coronavirus.

'Tipping point': Why European countries are alarmed by new Covid-19 variants
How concerned should Europe be by the spread of a new Covid-19 variant? AFP

The World Health Organization's European branch on Thursday said more needed to be done to deal with the alarming situation brought on by a recently discovered variant of the novel coronavirus.

Speaking at a press conference, the WHO's regional director for Europe Hans Kluge (pictured below), called the current situation “a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic,” as Europe was both challenged by surging cases and new variants of the virus causing Covid-19.

“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries,” Kluge said, referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK.

While it is natural for viruses to change over time and the variant is not believed to cause more severe symptoms, its “increased transmissibility,” means it still raises concern, according to WHO Europe.

AFP

“Without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurised health facilities,” Kluge said.

The variant has caused concern around Europe including:

Denmark 

The Covid-19 risk level in Denmark is now at the maximum level 5 with PM Mette Frederiksen saying the move was due in part to concerns about the new variant first detected in the UK. Level 5 indicates “widespread infection in society”, as well as “a risk that treatment capacity at hospitals will be exceeded”. 

As of January 5th at least 86 cases of the variant have been found by Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI), which genetically sequences a large number of samples from positive Covid-19 test swabs to identify the variant of the virus present.

Because SSI sequenced around 11 percent of all positive samples in the last six weeks of 2020, the actual number of people infected with the variant is likely to be around 9 times higher, the agency has said.

Health minister Magnus Heunicke said that the more infectious B117 variant “will” become the dominant form of Covid-19 in Denmark.

France

Initially the spread of the variant anglais, as it is called in France, caused little consternation, partly because France carries out far less sequencing after testing for the virus to identify which variants are at large.

But this week Health Minister Olivier Véran said authorities were now closely monitoring its spread but said only a dozen or so cases of the new mutation had been identified.

“It is a variant that worries us and for which we are deploying very significant logistical and diagnostic resources,” he said.

Two clusters have been identified – one in the greater Paris Île-de-France region and one in Brittany – comprising 19 people and the variant has also been detected on the island of Corsica.

One French scientist sounded the alarm, telling the media France was two months behind the UK in terms of the spread of the new variant.

Sweden

Sweden has now reported 17 cases of the new coronavirus strain first detected in the UK and thought to be more infectious. Of these, 12 cases have a direct link to travel from the UK, but five cannot be linked to travel. 

Public Health Agency's Karin Tegmark Wisell said that this was still not considered as “a general spread in society”, but acknowledged that only around one percent of tests are sequenced, but said “we have special tracks to identify groups where there are greater risks that the variations may exist” such as returning travellers. For comparison, Denmark sequences around 11 percent of its tests, noted public radio show Vetenskapsradion's Camilla Widebeck, who put the question to the Public Health Agency.

One case has also been recorded of the variant first detected in South Africa, which was directly linked to returning travel.

Norway

On January 6th Norway recorded its highest ever number of daily Covid-19 cases – 930 in one day.

An expert told pubic broadcaster NRK that a connection is possible between the increase in daily cases and two new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 that have been detected in Norway after initially being identified in other countries.

Health authorities said on Tuesday that one case of a new variant of Covid-19, first detected in South Africa and more contagious than other forms, has been detected in the Nordic country, along with further cases of the B117 variant first reported in the United Kingdom.

Switzerland

The variants of the coronavirus which were first identified in the UK and South Africa have been detected in several Swiss cantons.

As of January 6th, 28 cases of the variant have been detected in Switzerland, although experts suspect there will be many more cases detected soon. 

Geneva health authorities have said it is likely community transmission of the variants was already taking place in Switzerland.

Austria

As of January 5th five cases of the British and South African coronavirus variants have been discovered in Austria. Austria's Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said there was “very widespread concern”.

Germany

So far, only isolated cases of the variant have been reported in Germany, including in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.
 
However, experts expect the numbers will increase. German scientists stress that the new variant, originally detected in the UK, could make it more difficult to contain the pandemic.
 
Based on available data it seems likely it will soon be the dominant variant in Germany, virologist Jörg Timm from the University Hospital in Düsseldorf told Welt.

Spain

In Span the new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in the United Kingdom has been circulating between people who had not travelled from the UK or been in contact with those who have, since at least mid-December according to new research.

Imported cases have already been detected in Valencia, Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia and most recently Catalonia but preliminary analysis by the Fisabio Foundation research institute in Valencia, also suggested that the same mutation has been found in those with no connection to the UK.

Italy

There was initially widespread concern in Italy about what Italian media called the variante inglese. One case was confirmed in Rome shortly after the Italian government stopped flights from the UK on December 20th.
 
Around a dozen more cases had been detected around the country by December 28th, when a similar strain was found to have originated in Italy.

What measures are proposed to fight new variant?

The measures proposed by the WHO's Kluge were those “with which we are all familiar,” listing the adherence to generalised mask wearing, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distance and hand washing as prudent but in need of being intensified.

These measures coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, “will work if we all get involved,” Kluge said.

The WHO's European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, and 22 countries in the region have recorded cases of the new variant.

According to the organisation's estimates, the new variant could replace others across the region.

Europe has been hard hit by the Covid pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to WHO's monitoring. 

WHO Europe also estimates that excess mortality in 2020 was five times that of 2019 and three times that of 2018.

 

 

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COVID-19

Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.

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