Europe is counting its 22nd month with COVID-19. Despite differences across the bloc with vaccination levels, the EU has one of the highest numbers of people vaccinated across the globe.
But as the radio starts to play Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ and the temperatures drop, the cases are on the rise all across the bloc. Again.
“What we are seeing over the last few weeks is a worryingly rapid increase of the number of COVID-19 cases across Europe. We all know and we will concede that Europe is now in the middle of yet another wave,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said during the plenary session on Monday (22 November).
And this reminds us again, in a harsh way, that vaccination alone is not enough.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said at a press briefing on Friday (12 November) that vaccines do not replace the need for other precautions.
“Vaccines reduce the risk of hospitalisation, severe disease and death, but they do not fully prevent transmission,” he said adding that “It’s not ‘vaccines or’, it’s ‘vaccines and’”.
Almost 2 million cases of COVID-19 were reported in Europe in the second week of November, the most in a single week in the region since the pandemic started.
Meanwhile, almost 27,000 deaths were reported from Europe, more than half of all COVID-19 deaths globally last week.
Maria DeJoseph Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at WHO health emergencies programme, is not surprised by these numbers.
“The patterns that we are seeing across Europe, the patterns we’re seeing across the world, are entirely predictable,” she said.
New measures being introduced
Kerkhove referred to lifted public health and social measures in the context of circulating variants, increased social mixing and limited vaccination as the perfect storm for the virus to thrive in.
Some European countries are now reintroducing restrictions to curb transmission and take the pressure off their health systems.
New restrictions were met with a wave of protests across Europe, including in the Netherlands, Italy, Croatia, Austria and Belgium. Restrictions include stricter mask rules, working from home or even a return to full lockdown, as in Austria.
Ghebreyesus urged countries to use a “tailored and proportionate use of testing, masks, physical distancing measures; to prevent crowding, improve ventilation, and more.”
“With the right mix of measures, it’s possible for countries to find the balance between keeping transmission down and keeping their societies and economies open. No country can simply vaccinate its way out of the pandemic,” he said.
Kerkhove highlighted the importance of improving surveillance and appropriate testing linked to physical distancing, wearing of well-fitting masks, and avoiding crowds.
But it is not only about the right measures, but also about the right timing.
“The idea is to avoid having to put all of the measures in all at once. […] Otherwise, the transmission takes off too quickly. You have too many cases, the healthcare system gets overburdened. And then you have to just slam down and go into these so-called lockdowns,” Kerkhove said.
Latvia was the first country to enter into lockdown during this wave. The lockdown was announced from 21 October until 15 November.
Unvaccinated are driving the pandemic
Vaccines though still play a crucial role as the responsibility for driving the pandemic falls on unvaccinated population, highlighted Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist at WHO.
“What’s driving hospitalisation and deaths today, globally, is the unvaccinated across the world, in countries which have a lack of supplies, but also in countries which have enough supplies,” she said.
Swaminathan added that “this is where countries need to focus on reaching those populations, rather than on giving additional doses to those who have already received a primary course,” with the exception being immunocompromised individuals.
Every day, there are six times more boosters administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries. The WHO’s Ghebreyesus called the booster situation scandalous, saying it is “a scandal that must stop now”.
He added that it makes “no sense” to give boosters to healthy adults or to vaccinate children.
“When the health workers are older people and other high-risk groups around the world are still waiting for their first dose,” he said.
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The European Commission has proposed a progressive roll-out of the regulation on in vitro diagnostic medical devices (IDVs) in a bid to fight shortcomings. However, MEPs criticised the lack of notified bodies to assess their conformity and the delays of more than a decade in their application.
The European Commission is expected to propose introducing a third COVID-19 shot in the validity of the EU digital certificate in early December, an EU source told EURACTIV. The scenario of having a third jab within nine months after the last vaccination seems to be prevailing.
The European Commission will start administering the third dose for its staff this week, EURACTIV has learnt.
European Parliament’s plenary
On Monday (22 November), Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides addressed the plenary on coordination of member states’ measures in light of increasing cases of COVID-19 in the EU. The importance of vaccinating the unvaccinated was at the forefront of the message.
The Commission is aiming to harmonise the duration of the validity of the COVID-19 vaccination certificate across the bloc, including the effects of booster shots.
“Strong coordination is key. And that is why we’re currently preparing an update of the council recommendations related to free movement within the EU,” she said.
The proposal, to be adopted this week, will promote and acknowledge the important role of the EU digital COVID certificate that travellers nowadays carry.
“And we will also update the recommendation on travel into the EU from around the world,” Kyriakides said.
This week the Commission’s specific proposals on safe and free movement and a new risk assessment from the ECDC should be published.
On Monday (22 November), the plenary discussed a report from Parliament’s health committee (ENVI) on a pharmaceutical strategy for Europe. It will be voted on this week.
WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) on Tuesday (23 November) finalised a licensing agreement with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) for a COVID-19 serological antibody technology. This represents the first transparent, global, non-exclusive licence for a COVID-19 health tool, and the first test licence signed by MPP that has been included in the WHO Pool. The test effectively checks for the presence of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies developed either in response to a COVID-19 infection or to a vaccine.
On Tuesday (23 November), the WHO issued updated guidelines on the management of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19 (MIS-C). MIS-C is a rare but serious condition where children with COVID-19 develop inflammation affecting different organs of the body. WHO’s updated guidelines recommend the use of corticosteroids in hospitalised children (aged 0-18 years) with this condition, in addition to supportive treatment and care. This recommendation comes following the availability of three observational studies, pooling data from 885 patients in total. Guidance is available here.
The EU’s drugs agency EMA has started evaluating an application for conditional marketing authorisation for US biotech firm Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine, Nuvaxovid. If granted, this will be the fifth vaccine authorised in the EU.
On Thursday (18 November) MEPs from various political groups wrote to the Commission requesting further action on promoting vaccine justice around the world. In the letter, MEPs criticised the EU for neglecting vaccine uptake in low-income countries, saying that a strategy that prioritises vaccination in EU member states alone will not resolve the COVID-19 pandemic.
A series of reports published by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) on Tuesday (22 November) highlighted the economic opportunities of longer lives across Europe. According to the reports, older people’s contributions across the European region are significant and growing. However, the report also warns that the key barrier to realising these opportunities is poor health – limiting people’s ability to stay active as they age.
Macron calls for ‘not giving in to lies’ as protests against mandatory jabs in Guadeloupe unfold. On the sidelines of a trip to Amiens in northern France, President Emmanuel Macron has called for “calm and public order” in Guadeloupe as the French island in the Caribbean is shaken by a protest movement against the mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers. By Mathieu Pollet | EURACTIV.fr
Portugal’s Madeira now classified as ‘red’ on EU COVID-19 map. Madeira is now in the high-risk category for COVID-19, moving from orange to red on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) map, which supports travel decisions in the European Union (EU). By Ana Matos Neves | Lusa
BRATISLAVA | BUDAPEST
Slovaks lockdown unvaccinated as Hungary’s Orban opts for masks. As the COVID-19 situation sharply deteriorates in the CEE region, both the Slovak and Hungarian governments introduce new measures. Bratislava has chosen a light version of a ‘lockdown for the unvaccinated’, while Budapest has tightened mask rules. By Michal Hudec and Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com with Telex and EURACTIV.sk
Half do not show for booster appointments in some Irish vaccination centres. Some vaccination centres in Ireland report up to 50% of those who have booked appointments to receive COVID-19 booster shots fail to turn up, the head of Ireland’s health service has said. By Molly Killeen | EURACTIV.com
ATHENS | ROME
A third shot within six months since the last dose of the COVID-19 vaccine should be introduced in the EU COVID certificate to be valid, according to Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis in a televised speech. Meanwhile, in Italy, the government considers making COVID certificates valid for nine months after the last jab. EURACTIV reports from Athens and Rome. By Eleonora Vasques, Matthaios Tsimitakis and Sarantis Michalopoulos | EURACTIV.com, EURACTIV.gr and EURACTIV.it
Germany tightens COVID-19 rules as case numbers soar. As Germany faces the full brunt of the fourth wave of the pandemic and vaccination rates continue to be lower than those of Spain and Italy, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 16 minister-presidents agreed to a new set of restrictions late Thursday (18 November). By Nikolaus J. Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de
New German coalition mulls lockdown for unvaccinated, selective vaccine mandates. “We will get this off the ground,” Katrin Göring-Eckardt, head of the Greens in the German parliament, said about the prospect of changing the law to require vaccination for select professions, like caretakers in homes for the elderly and childcare workers. By Nikolaus J. Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de
The European Commission is set to propose either a recommendation or a delegated act to extend the use of COVID certificated to travel in the EU, a source close to the matter told EURACTIV.com. The source added that the certificate will expire twelve months after the last dose of a COVID-19 vaccine was administered. By Sarantis Michalopoulos | EURACTIV.com
Belgium toughens coronavirus measures. Belgium has made working from home compulsory again, as part of a range of new measures aimed at stopping the fourth wave of coronavirus. EURACTIV’s media partner has more.
Italy’s doctors and nurses protest lack of emergency department staff. Nurses and doctors protested in Rome on Wednesday (17 November) over the lack of some 4,000 emergency department staff and poor working conditions. By Eleonora Vasques | EURACTIV.com
Some Italian regions want Austria-style lockdown for unvaccinated. Italy’s northern regions of Liguria, Trentino Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and the southern region of Calabria are calling on the government to enforce a lockdown for unvaccinated people. This follows the lead of Austria, which ordered lockdowns for unvaccinated citizens from Monday (15 November). By Eleonora Vasques | EURACTIV.com
Spain revises upwards threshold for all COVID-19 indicators. The Spanish health ministry and the country’s health regional authorities on Tuesday (16 November) decided to revise upwards the thresholds of all COVID-19 indicators given a substantial reduction in the number of coronavirus patients being admitted in hospitals or treated in intensive care units (ICU), EURACTIV’s partner EFE reported. By Fernando Heller | EuroEFE.EURACTIV.es
Bars and restaurants go on strike in Greece, report massive losses. The catering industry, pubs, cafés, and restaurants went on strike on Tuesday (16 November) to protest the government’s COVID measures, which according to them, have led to 30-50% income losses and threaten jobs in the sector. By Matthaios Tsimitakis | EURACTIV.gr
22-25 November | Strasbourg’s plenary agenda: Debate on “A Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe“ (Monday 22); Commission Statement – A European Action Plan Against Rare Diseases (Wednesday 24); Debate: The EU’s Role in Combating the Covid-19 Pandemic (Wednesday 24)
18-24 November | World Antimicrobial Awareness Week