2nd Dec 2023

EU fears 'alarming' third wave, as bloc back in lockdown

  • The so-called UK variant, which is up to 75-percent more transmissible, is now the dominant strain in the EU (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission has raised concerns about the "alarming" epidemiological situation in some member states, warning that it could worsen in the coming weeks as a third wave of the pandemic hits the continent.

"We are facing again an exceptional situation," the EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a press conference on Wednesday (24 March).

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Coronavirus infections are soaring in 19 out of 27 member states - with 15 countries seeing an increase of hospitalisations and eight reporting an increase in the number of fatalities, she added.

"The situation is concerning because we have seen the increase in the number of [coronavirus] variants in the recent weeks," Kyriakides said, warning variants remain an "urgent threat" that must be addressed swiftly.

The so-called UK variant, which is up to 75 percent more transmissible, is now dominant in the EU, although the South African and the Brazilian mutations have also been detected in several EU countries.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency based in Stockholm, previously warned that countries where the UK variant has become predominant, have seen "increased hospitalisations, overstretched health systems and excess mortality".

The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Sweden, Poland and Slovakia currently have the highest infection rates in the EU (more than 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants) - a situation which has triggered harder lockdowns and additional restrictive measures, amid the slow rollout of vaccines.

The Czech Republic has the EU's highest-infection rate and the highest cumulative death toll in the world in per-capita terms.

But infections are also at - or close to - record numbers in several member states, including Finland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.

Poland, for example, has reported the highest number of new daily cases since the start of the pandemic - with the UK variant representing about 60 percent of new infections.

As a result, many countries have now introduced or increased lockdown measures for the coming weeks, covering the Easter holidays.

Additionally, several countries have put in place unilateral restrictions for non-essential travel in a bid to curb the number of infections - including Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Slovakia.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced a U-turn on lockdown restrictions for Easter, which had included the closure of all businesses for five days.

She said that the plans to place the country under strict lockdown over the Easter holidays were her personal mistake.

"We must try to slow down the third wave of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it was a mistake… at the end of the day, I carry the last responsibility," Merkel said during a press conference, according to the German press.

For comparison, Croatia, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Portugal have reported the lowest infection rate in the bloc.

Vaccine-resistant variants?

The European Commission announced on Wednesday a roadmap to allow a fast-track regulatory approval of updated vaccines.

"We need to be prepared to adapt vaccines as quickly as possible to respond to new and potentially vaccine-resistant variants," said Kyriakides.

Building on the approach for adapted influenza (flu) vaccines, companies will not be obliged to submit an entire file from scratch.

Moreover, manufacturers will be able to ask for the approval of different modified vaccines under the same marketing authorisation application.

Both MEPs and member states still have to give green light to the proposal.

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