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18th Apr 2021

Worries on Europe's infection surge, after six-week drop

  • 'We need to get back to the basics,' said the chief of the European branch of the World Health Organization, Hans Kluge, urging countries to ramp up testing and genome-sequencing efforts (Photo: European Parliament)

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday (4 March) of a surge in the number of new coronavirus infections across Europe - after six consecutive weeks of decline.

Over one million new cases have been reported in the 53-country region of Europe, representing an increase of nine percent on the previous week.

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"We are seeing a resurgence in central and eastern Europe. New cases are also on the rise in several western European countries where rates were already high," said the chief of WHO Europe, Hans Kluge.

France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, among others, have recently seen a spike in the number of new coronavirus cases - while infections have dropped in Ireland, Monaco, Montenegro, Spain and Portugal over the past two weeks.

Hungary recorded on Thursday 6,278 new cases, the highest daily tally in three months, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, one of the hardest-hit countries in the bloc, turned to European countries with a request to share the burden of coronavirus patients as hospitals across the country fill up. Neighbouring Germany, Poland, and Switzerland have offered dozens of beds in hospitals.

"Continued strain on our hospitals and health workers is being met with acts of medical solidarity between European neighbours. Nonetheless, over a year into the pandemic, our health systems should not be in this situation," Kluge said.

"We need to get back to the basics," he added, urging countries to ramp up testing and genome-sequencing efforts to identify variants.

Ease lockdowns 'gradually' warning

Moreover, the WHO Europe chief also said that countries should only ease lockdowns "gradually," driving their decision by evidence - while considering measures to counter "pandemic fatigue".

Meanwhile, the EU's medicines agency (EMA) has started a rolling review of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine - an announcement welcomed by the WHO Europe as "good news".

"We desperately need to enlarge our portfolio of vaccines, so I see this as a very welcome development," Kluge said, adding that Russia has "a robust and proven past of vaccine development". This was the case for polio and yellow fever.

The rolling review is the first step in the EU's vaccine-authorisation process. Afterwards, a marketing authorisation application can be submitted.

Sputnik V vaccine is 91.6 percent effective against symptomatic Covid-19, according to results published in the journal The Lancet last month.

With their orders for the Russian vaccine, Slovakia and Hungary are the only countries in the EU country that have purchased a vaccine that is not yet authorised by the EMA.

The European Commission said on Thursday that there are no current negotiations to purchase the Russian vaccine, however.

"No talks are ongoing between negotiation teams and the producers, or institutes, or companies or organisations behind the Sputnik vaccine," a commission spokesperson said.

Earlier this year, the commission president Ursula von der Leyen queried the Sputnik V vaccine, questioning why "Russia is offering millions of millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people".

Only around four percent of Russia's population has received the jab so far, according to Our World in Data.

"Given the relatively low vaccination rate, you can see that Russia is using Sputnik V as a political instrument," said German MEP Christian Ehler from the European People's Party.

Russians first?

For his part, fellow MEP Peter Liese said he was sceptical about whether the vaccine could accelerate inoculation programmes across the bloc since larger deliveries to the EU would only be possible when the mass vaccinations in Russia are finished.

"This will only be possible in the second half of the year, and then we will definitely no longer need Sputnik," he said.

"At that time, there is a real chance that, in addition to the three vaccines already approved and Johnson&Johnson, the companies Curevac and Novavx will also already be able to deliver," he added.

Until now, BioNtech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are the only jabs approved in the EU, but Johnson&Johnson authorisation is expected next week (11 March).

EU fraud agency warns governments on vaccine scams

OLAF said fraudsters may offer to sell large quantities of vaccines, deliver a sample in order to pocket the first advance payment - and then vanish with the money, or deliver fake vaccines.

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