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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

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

With a sharp rise in reported cases in recent weeks, France appears to be in the middle of a new wave of Covid infections - so what measures are the government taking to control it?

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

Recorded case numbers in France are now over 50,000 a week, and have been since the beginning of June – this is a long way short of the 350,000 weekly cases recorded in January but still the highest since May and representing a steady an increase of 57 percent on the previous week.

Hospital admissions are also on the rise – standing at 707 admissions on Friday, June 24th compared to 400 daily admissions just two weeks earlier.

So what is the French government doing about it?

Since March, almost all Covid-related restrictions have been lifted in France – the health pass is no longer required for everyday activities such as visiting a bar or going to the gym and face masks are now merely advised in all indoor locations. Only hospitals and other health establishments such as nursing homes still have mandatory rules on face masks and health passes.

For international travel, fully vaccinated arrivals from most countries – including the UK, US and the whole of the EU – need only to show proof of vaccination, while unvaccinated travellers need to show proof of a recent negative Covid test – full details HERE.

Health pass

A proposed bill from the health ministry that was leaked to French media talks about re-imposing some form of pass sanitaire (health pass) to get numbers under control.

Some caveats to add here is that the document is only a proposal at this stage and the government has explicitly rules out – for the moment – reintroducing the vaccine pass. The health pass can be used to show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test, so it is less restrictive for the unvaccinated.

The document suggests re-introducing a health pass for travel – both to and from France – not for everyday activities like going to a café.

Testing and contact tracing

The bill also proposes extending the software involved in contact tracing and the Covid testing programme until March 2023, although this is described as a ‘precaution’.

Testing remains available on a walk-in basis at most French pharmacies and by appointment at health centres and medical labs. Tests are free for fully-vaccinated residents of France who have a carte vitale. Those are only visiting France, who are not registered in the French health system or who are not vaccinated have to pay – prices are capped at €22 for an antigen test and €54 for a PCR test.

READ ALSO How tourists in France can get a Covid test

Masks

The government’s Covid vaccine adviser Alain Fischer told France Info that he was in favour of making face masks compulsory on public transport again and said it is ‘being discussed” at government level.

At present masks are not required, but are recommended, especially on busy services where it is impossible to practice social distancing.

Epidemiologist Pascal Crépey said: “In crowded trains, the risk of being in the presence of infected people is high. It would be a good idea for the population to wear the mask, to protect especially the most fragile and avoid massive infection rates.”

Local measures

French local authorities also have the power to impose certain types of restrictions if their area has a particularly high rate of infections.

At present, none have done so, but Nice mayor Christian Estrosi has spoken in favour of possibly bringing back the vaccine pass over the summer.

Second booster shots

A second booster shot of the Covid vaccine is now available to all over 60s and anyone who has a long-term medical condition or who is otherwise at risk from Covid.

It is recommended that the government increase public messaging advising those in high risk groups to get the second booster shot. The medical regular HAS has advised combining second booster shots with the seasonal flu vaccine campaign in September and October.

France is not, at present, considering widening the campaign to the entire popular, but the EU’s vaccine commissioner Thierry Breton says that if necessary, there would be enough doses to cover the whole population.

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