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Post: Coronavirus Update: European countries lifted COVID restrictions ‘too brutally,’ says WHO regional head, allowing BA.2 variant to spread

European countries, including the UK, German and France, lifted their COVID-19 restrictions “too brutally” and are now struggling with rising cases again as the highly transmissible BA.2 variant spreads, according to the European head of the World Health Organization.

Hans Kluge told reporters at a briefing in Moldova that he is “optimistic but vigilant” about the pandemic in Europe, where cases are rising in 18 out of the 53 countries that comprise the WHO’s region, which includes certain former Soviet Republics that are more often deemed to be part of Asia.

“Those countries are lifting the restrictions brutally from too much to too few,” he said, naming a group that also includes Ireland, Greece, Cyprus and Italy.

Just like the U.S., Europe saw a sharp surge in cases in December and early January as the omicron strain began to spread, before a steep decline at the end of January. Then the BA.2 subvariant of omicron emerged and cases started to rise again in early March.

The agency has counted more than 5.1 million new cases in the Europe region in the last seven days and 12,496 people have died.

The U.S. should pay attention to Europe’s numbers as throughout the pandemic a climb in cases there was followed by a spike in U.S. cases a few weeks later. Experts, including President Joe Biden’s Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said that BA.2 will likely cause an uptick in cases in the coming weeks, even as states have moved to drop restrictions and public safety measures such as face masks.

See now: Fauci says uptick in COVID cases likely following rise in Europe, warns ‘this virus has fooled us before’

The White House, meanwhile, is clamoring for Congress to provide the $22.5 billion that Biden has said is needed to continue the battle against COVID, as the Associated Press reported.

That’s after a round of COVID-19 funding was pulled out of a $1.5 trillion government-wide measure after rank-and-file Democrats rejected cuts that party leaders had negotiated with Republicans to pay for it. Though Biden signed the overall bill into law, the deletion of the COVID-19 funds was a major setback for Biden and Democrats.

“Our concern right now is that we are going to run out of money to provide the types of vaccines, boosters, treatments to the immunocompromised, and others free of charge that will help to continue to battle” the pandemic, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

For now, the U.S. numbers are still falling nationally. The U.S. is averaging 29,612 new cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, down 29% from two weeks ago.

See now: Two years of COVID-19: How the pandemic changed the way we shop, work, invest and get medical care

The average daily number of hospitalizations stands at 21,679, down 41% from two weeks ago. Deaths are averaging 1,056 a day, down 28% from two weeks ago, but still an undesirably high number. 

And cases have started to climb again in certain states, such as Arkansas, where they are up 18% from two weeks ago, Colorado, where they are up 10% and New York, where they are up 21%, the tracker shows. The CDC has said BA.2 is accounting for at least 23% of new cases.

What is an endemic and how will we know when Covid-19 becomes one? WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down how public-health experts assess when a virus like Covid-19 enters an endemic stage. Photo: Michael Nagle/Zuma Press

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• Top scientists in Hong Kong are calling for an end to the island’s zero COVID strategy, arguing that it is keeping it as a “closed port,” AFP reported. Hong Kong used strict travel curbs to keep the virus at bay for two years but that has left it increasingly isolated and a deadly omicron outbreak since January has led to an exodus of residents and businesses fleeing its mounting list of restrictions. Scientists estimate that around 4.4 million people in densely populated Hong Kong – or 60% of the population – have been infected so far during the omicron wave.

• Pfizer

has agreed to supply Unicef with up to 4 million doses of its COVID-19 antiviral for 95 low and middle-income countries. The deal will cover about 53% of the world’s population beginning in April, Pfizer said in a statement. The treatment, marketed under the name Paxlovid, is a capsule that can be taken at home. Financial terms were not disclosed. Supply will continue through 2022 and low and lower-middle-income countries will be offered the treatment at a not-for-profit price, while wealthier ones will be charged based on Pfizer’s tiered pricing approach. 

Hong Kong, which has faced a record surge in Covid-19 cases and the world’s highest death rate, has been under strict restrictions. WSJ’s Diana Chan reports on how everyday life has changed in the city, from panic buying to an exodus of residents. Photo: Emmanuel Serna/Zuma Press

• Norway’s 85-year-old King Harald V tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday and has mild symptoms, royal officials said, the AP reported. Harald will take a break from his duties for a few days and that his son and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Haakon, would take them over for now, the royal household said in a brief statement. Harald has received three vaccine shots but has been ill from other causes in recent years.

• The number of children who were absent from state schools in England last week has more than tripled in two weeks, the Guardian reported. The number bolsters the case for head teachers who have warned of growing disruption in classroom as students prepare for summer exams. Figures published by the Department for Education on Tuesday showed 202,000 pupils were off school on 17 March because of the virus, up from 58,000 two weeks earlier when attendance was described as returning to “something approaching normal.”

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 472.3 million on Tuesday, while the death toll rose above 6.09 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 79.8 million cases and 972,681 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 217.1 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 65.4% of the population. But just 96.7 million are boosted, equal to 44.5% of the vaccinated population.

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