With the staggering increase in daily fresh coronavirus cases and deaths in much of Europe , the continent has for the second time since last March, become the pandemic epicentre. The resurgence in daily new cases which began in early October and restricted to three countries has since spread and is driven by the Delta variant. The continent reported nearly two million new cases last week, the highest since the pandemic began; more than half of the global COVID-19 deaths this month were in Europe. In Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Norway, the daily cases are the highest since the pandemic began; Romania and Ukraine reported record high numbers a few weeks ago. With hospitals fast filling up, WHO predicts that there would be extreme stress on hospital beds and intensive care units in many European countries between now and March next year. While the vaccination rates in most countries in western Europe are higher — Ireland leads the table with over 90% adults being fully vaccinated in early September — the vaccination levels are relatively lower in eastern Europe. With France setting an example, many countries are now making it difficult for the unvaccinated to freely travel or enter certain public or even workplaces, in an attempt to increase vaccine uptake. And in a first, Austria made vaccination mandatory starting February next year and went into a national lockdown for three weeks from November 22. Austria has managed to fully vaccinate about 65% of its eligible population, which is one of the lowest rates in western Europe.
While most of the new daily cases reported are among the unvaccinated, breakthrough infections and hospitalisations are being reported in the fully vaccinated too. However, the deaths have predominantly been among the unvaccinated. Even while WHO has called for a moratorium on booster doses till this year-end so vaccines become available to developing countries, its Europe office has endorsed administering booster doses as a “priority” to the most vulnerable populations — based on growing evidence of a decline in protection against infection and mild disease among the fully vaccinated. As evidence has shown, vaccines alone will be insufficient to break the transmission chain. Unfortunately, most western countries focused primarily on increasing vaccination coverage while foregoing simple yet highly effective non-pharmaceutical interventions such as universal mask wearing, physical distancing and improved ventilation in confined spaces. A study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, predicts 0.9 million more hospitalisations and 0.3 million additional deaths in 19 European countries where people have been neither infected nor vaccinated. WHO predicts 0.7 million more deaths by March 2022 in Europe and central Asia. Compliance with public health measures can indeed avoid needless infections and deaths.