Europe could suffer 500,000 more virus deaths by Feb: WHO expert

Hans Kluge says Europe is ‘back at epicentre of pandemic’ as social distancing measures are abandoned.

Several countries in the WHO's Europe region have seen daily coronavirus case numbers shoot up in recent weeks, including Russia, where vaccination coverage is low [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

The current rate of COVID-19 transmission in Europe is of “grave concern” and the region could see another 500,000 deaths by early next year, according to the European head of the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge told reporters on Thursday that new coronavirus cases in Europe were near record levels, with spiralling infection rates fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant.

“Today, every single country in our region is facing a real threat of COVID-19 resurgence or already fighting it,” Kluge said from the global health agency’s Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

With 78 million cases in the WHO’s Europe region – which includes all 27 member states of the European Union and the United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey, several Central Asian nations, and Israel – its cumulative toll now exceeds that of South East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean region, the Western Pacific, and Africa combined.

Kluge said hospitalisation rates due to COVID-19 in the region more than doubled over the last week. If that trajectory continues, Europe could see another half a million more pandemic deaths by February, he warned.

“We are at another critical point of pandemic resurgence,” Kluge said. “Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic, where we were one year ago.”

‘Insufficient vaccination coverage’

According to WHO Europe, the region tallied nearly 1.8 million new cases last week, marking an increase of about six percent from the previous seven days. Health authorities also recorded 24,000 COVID-19 weekly deaths, a 12 percent rise on the previous week.

Kluge said the uptick in infection rates had been observed “across all age groups”. He blamed the soaring caseload on “insufficient vaccination coverage” and “the relaxation of public health and social measures”, such as physical distancing and mandatory mask-wearing.

Kluge said European nations were at “varying stages of vaccination rollout” and that region-wide, an average of 47 percent of people were fully vaccinated.

In nine countries, 70 percent were fully vaccinated, according to data collated by WHO Europe, while in three – Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia – the rate remains below 20 percent.

“We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of COVID-19, to preventing them from happening in the first place,” Kluge said.

WHO’s headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday reported that cases had risen in Europe for the fifth consecutive week, making it the only region where COVID-19 is still increasing.

The infection rate was by far the highest in Europe, which reported some 192 new cases per 100,000 people.

That came after the global death toll from COVID-19 topped five million people on Monday, less than two years into a crisis that has not only devastated poor countries but also humbled wealthy ones with better healthcare systems.

Many believed the actual death toll to be higher.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies