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Germany’s health minister warned on Friday there were not enough vaccine doses in Europe to contain a third wave of COVID-19 which has triggered infection rates to soar and prompted fresh lockdowns in parts of the continent.
Jens Spahn’s cautionary message came as Germany and several other European nations sought to get their vaccine rollout programmes back on track following the disruption caused by a slew of suspensions on the use of the AstraZeneca shot.
Case numbers have been rising in Germany, driven by an easing of restrictions in recent weeks just as a more transmissible variant of the virus has spread, underlining the need to accelerate vaccinations to protect the vulnerable.
Spahn defended the AstraZeneca suspension, which was lifted on Thursday after European Union regulators said the benefits of the shot outweighed its risk, as providing transparency.
“We can reintroduce AstraZeneca but prudently with informed doctors and appropriately educated citizens,” he said in a weekly news conference.
But Spahn warned that vaccinations alone would not be able to contain the third wave as there are not enough doses, and said restrictions that were lifted may have to be reimposed to contain the spread of the virus.
“The rising case numbers may mean that we cannot take further opening steps in the weeks to come. On the contrary, we may even have to take steps backwards,” Spahn said.
Elsewhere in Europe, health authorities in the Netherlands on Friday recorded its biggest daily rise in coronavirus cases since early January, with infections jumping by about 7,400 in the past 24 hours.
Infections were about 20 percent higher on Friday than a week earlier, while the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals increased by 7 percent in the past week, Dutch Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus told the national news agency ANP.
Dutch public health authorities have repeatedly warned over an imminent new wave of infections, due to the rise of new mutations of the virus.
On Tuesday, they said about 75 percent of all new cases were now of the so-called Kent variant first discovered in the United Kingdom late last year.
The big jump in infections comes just two days after Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative party won general elections, in a result seen as an endorsement of his handling of the pandemic, despite a persistently high rate of infections and a slow rollout of vaccinations.
The Dutch government is set to decide in the coming days whether there is any room to ease a broad lockdown, which includes a night-time curfew and the closure of all bars and restaurants in the country.
In France, meanwhile, the government warned of a “third wave” of the pandemic, with three-quarters of new cases from the so-called Kent variant, and more patients who are younger and in better health.
On Thursday, authorities imposed a new lockdown for the capital, Paris, and several other regions.
Since late January, when he defied the calls of scientists and some in his government to lock the country down, French President Emmanuel Macron has said he would do whatever it takes to keep the euro zone’s second-largest economy as open as possible.
However, this week he ran out of options just as France and other European countries, including Italy, which has also witnessed a recent spike in cases, briefly suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The UK, a former EU member, is a notable exception to the trend in Europe. The outbreak in the UK is receding, and the country has been widely praised for its vaccination drive, though this week it announced that it, too, would be hit by vaccine supply shortages.
EU countries, by contrast, have struggled to quickly roll out vaccines, and the pause of the AstraZeneca shot by many this week only added to those troubles.