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Countries across Europe impose curbs to slow new Covid-19 wave

Several European countries are reimposing restrictions in a bid to dampen down a worrying rise in Covid-19 cases. Governments are also taking more measures to encourage more people to get vaccinated against the virus.

Countries across Europe impose curbs to slow new Covid-19 wave
People queue up in front of a bar, in Eindhoven, The Netherlands as the country on Friday became the first country in Europe to impose a new partial lockdown. Photo: Rob Engelaar/ANP/AFP

What is the situation in Europe?

The weekly number of coronavirus cases across Europe has been on the rise since early October and now stands at levels unseen since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past seven days 2,125,775 cases have been registered, a daily average of 303,682, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

That broke the previous European record of 1,988,507 cases logged in the week of November 2-8 2020.

The latest figures also represent a 13-percent rise on the previous week. Five countries — Britain, Germany, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine — logged rises of more than 50 percent.

It is worth noting that many more Covid tests are being carried out now than was the case when the pandemic first hit the continent in early 2020.

The above chart from Our World in Data shows the seven-day rolling average for daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people in the countries covered by The Local.

Are all parts of Europe affected equally?

The overall figures hide national differences which are due in large part to differences in the speed of the vaccination roll-out and the social health measures imposed.

In Britain, for example, though Covid cases numbers are on the rise, high vaccination rates have kept additional hospitalisations down, said Yves Coppieters, epidemiologist at the ULB university in Brussels. The same is not true of Eastern European countries, he added.

In countries such as Spain and Portugal, which are very well vaccinated, or indeed Italy which has taken tough measures, the rebound is still not very visible, he added.

France is somewhere in between, with a rise in cases “but less strong”, Coppieters told AFP.

On Friday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said the situation was continuing to worsen in the EU.

Of the 27 member states the centre placed Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia in the category of highest concern.

How are countries responding to the surge? 

For most European nations the main goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible. 

In France, where infection rates remain comparatively low, the requirement to show a Covid-19 health pass has never been lifted. But the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, on Tuesday said that health passes would on December 15th cease to be valid for over-65 year-olds who are eligible to have a booster shot but who have not yet had one. 

Some countries are going further, starting to reinstate some of the restrictions on movement which populations had hoped were over.

The government of Russia said on Friday it had submitted to parliament two bills that will introduce mandatory health passes to access restaurants and public transport, amid a new wave of coronavirus cases. Health professionals there will also have to wear masks and be tested for Covid twice a week.

In Austria, the government said it wants a nationwide lockdown for those not vaccinated against or recovered from the coronavirus.

Only around 65 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in Austria, a rate described by Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg as “shamefully low”.

In The Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced Western Europe’s first partial lockdown of the winter, with at least three weeks of Covid curbs on restaurants, shops and sporting events.

A side-effect of the tougher measures could be more public discontent.

Several hundred protesters angered by Rutte’s announcement gathered in The Hague afterwards, with police firing water cannon at them.

Denmark on Friday brought back its coronapas, with evidence of a negative test result or vaccination required to enter bars, restaurants, cafés and nightclubs, as well as large events. 

In Norway, new prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre, has made a similar move, on Friday announcing that municipalities across the country would be able to bring back the Covid-19 app, with the worst-hit city, Tromsø, saying that a valid pass would be required from Tuesday.

Other countries remain in wait-and-see mode. 

In Germany the parties likely to form the next government are considering measures such as restricting access to certain facilities only to those who are vaccinated or have recovered from the disease within the last six months – a system known as “2G” in Germany. 

The parties also want to tighten testing requirements for employers, and reintroduce free rapid antigen tests – a measure that had been in place over the summer but was scrapped in mid-October to incentivise vaccination.

In Spain, where face masks are still required indoors, some regions are starting to warn that it might be necessary to bring in new measures, with the government of Navarre even floating requiring a Covid-19 pass to enter bars and cafés, a measure that was barely used in Spain during previous waves. 

Only one country, Sweden, is actually loosening measures to control the virus. 

Going, as ever, against the herd, Sweden this month stopped requiring those who are fully vaccinated to get tested if they experience Covid-19 symptoms, and stopped offering them free PCR tests. 

This World in Data chart shows the proportion of the population in each of the countries covered by The Local that is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, with Spain topping the list, almost twenty percentage points above vaccination laggard Austria.

Will we see the death rate rise?

Last week the WHO’s Europe chief warned that the current trajectory of Covid in Europe could mean “another half a million Covid-19 deaths” by February.

A daily average of 4,031 coronavirus related deaths have been recorded over the past week — a 10-percent rise on the previous week and an 18-percent rise on the week before that. A year ago the daily average was 3,785 fatalities.

“We are seeing a wave of infections due to the Delta variant and lower temperatures, but vaccination should prevent a correlation with hospitalisations,” said Coppieters. “There will inevitably be great heterogeneity between countries depending on vaccination coverage.”

These four Our World in Data charts demonstrate the impact of rising vaccination rates on ICU admissions and new deaths from the virus.

Will vaccinating more people be enough?

No, according to Coppieters. “The key is of course to vaccinate those most at risk to achieve herd immunity,” he told AFP. “For the rest of the population, we must above all maintain barrier measures, indoor ventilation and a testing policy,” he added.

Last week the WHO highlighted those methods, calling for continued vaccinations along with widespread use of masks and social distancing measures.

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Medical row in France over unauthorised Covid trial

French medical bodies on Sunday called on authorities to punish researcher Didier Raoult for "the largest 'unauthorised' clinical trial ever seen" into the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19.

Medical row in France over unauthorised Covid trial

French medical bodies on Sunday called on authorities to punish researcher Didier Raoult for “the largest ‘unauthorised’ clinical trial ever seen” into the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19.

Raoult, the former head of the IHU Mediterranee research hospital, and his subordinates engaged in “systematic prescription of medications as varied as hydroxychloroquine, zinc, ivermectin and azithromycin to patients suffering from Covid-19… without a solid pharmacological basis and lacking any proof of their effectiveness,” a group of 16 research bodies wrote in an op-ed piece  on daily Le Monde’s website.

The drugs continued to be prescribed “for more than a year after their ineffectiveness had been absolutely demonstrated,” they added.

Endorsement from respected tropical disease specialist Raoult helped push anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine into the public consciousness in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, feeding into its promotion by former US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s then-leader Jair Bolosonaro.

In April, France’s ANSM medications authority said that treatment with hydroxichloroquine “exposes patients to potential side effects that can be serious”.

The doctors’ bodies said Sunday that authorities should take “measures appropriate to the infractions” for the sake of patient safety and “the credibility of French medical research”.

Raoult in March published a “pre-print” study — not yet submitted for scientific peer review — into treatment of more than 30,000 Covid-19 patients.

So far no one has been charged in a probe opened last year by Marseille prosecutors into fraud and unwarranted human testing at the IHU Mediterranee, based in the southern port city.

The government has also requested an investigation into the IHU’s conduct under Raoult’s management following a harsh report from inspectors.

Health Minister Francois Braun told broadcaster RTL on Sunday that he would not comment on an open investigation, but confirmed that the latest study would be included in the probe’s remit.

Raoult retired as a professor in summer 2021 and was replaced at the IHU Mediterrannee last August.

A spokesman said he remained an emeritus professor and was still supervising two doctoral students who began work on their theses before he left.

At the IHU itself, all clinical trials involving humans have been suspended since Raoult’s replacement Pierre-Edouard Fournier took over.

The hospital told AFP it was waiting for the ANSM drug regulator’s word before resuming the trials.

“The IHU has to show it has met expectations” before human testing would be allowed, the ANSM said, without setting out a timeframe.