The head of the World Health Organization for Europe said Thursday that continent is entering a “plausible endgame” to the pandemic as the number of coronavirus deaths is starting to plateau.
Dr. Hans Kluge made the comment at a press briefing where he also said Europe has a “singular opportunity” to take control of transmission thanks to high levels of immunization due to vaccination and natural infection, the virus’s tendency to spread less in warmer weather, and the lower severity of the omicron variant, as the Associated Press reported.
“This period of higher protection should be seen as a cease-fire that could bring us enduring peace,” he said.
He emphasized, however, that the situation demands “a drastic and uncompromising increase in vaccine-sharing across borders,” stretching across Europe and beyond. The WHO has repeatedly warned that failing to ensure access to vaccines in poorer countries will allow the coronavirus to keep spreading and for new variants to emerge that could prove resistant to vaccines.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned earlier this week of that exact possibility when he said it’s too early to declare victory over the pandemic, and urged countries to stick with mitigation measures and keep tracking variants.
“We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines — and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity — preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary,” Tedros said Tuesday. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The agency has said even countries with high levels of vaccination should not succumb to political pressure and release all of their coronavirus measures at once.
Kluge noted that there were 12 million new coronavirus cases across WHO’s European region last week, the highest single weekly total during the pandemic. He said that spike was driven by the hugely infectious omicron variant, but admissions to hospital intensive care units haven’t risen significantly.
So far, Denmark, the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands have dropped most restrictions and others are planning to do so.
In the U.S., some political leaders are also calling for the government to start treating COVID as endemic, where it is still present but no longer creating surges of cases and burdening healthcare systems, allowing Americans to get back to something like normality.
The U.S. daily numbers remain stubbornly high, however, mostly because fewer Americans are fully vaccinated than are people in other wealthy countries. The U.S. is averaging 2,658 COVID deaths a day, up 35% from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker. That’s the most since last winter before vaccines were available.
Cases are coming down from the omicron-driven peak in December and January, however, and have fallen 49% from two weeks ago to an average of 385,425 a day. Hospitalizations are also declining, down 16% at 133,626 a day.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• The U.S. surgeon general said regulators reviewing a COVID-19 vaccine for children below the age of five will use the “same independent rigorous and transparent” process as used for adult vaccines. Dr. Vivek Murthy made the comment at a White House press briefing on Wednesday. His comments came after a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that just three in 10 parents of children in that age group are willing to get their child vaccinated right away once a vaccine is authorized.
• The U.S. Army said it would discharge soldiers who refuse to get COVID vaccine shots, NPR reported. “Army readiness depends on Soldiers who are prepared to train, deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars,” said Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth. “Unvaccinated Soldiers present risk to the force and jeopardize readiness.”
• Germany’s vaccine advisory body on Thursday recommended a fourth vaccine shot for at-risk people, including those over 70-years-old, the immunocompromised and health care workers, Politico reported. “Protection against infections with the currently circulating Omicron variant decreases within a few months after a first booster vaccination,” the Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) said in a statement. Israel has already started to give fourth shots to its vulnerable citizens.
• New Zealand unveiled a phased reopening of its borders on Thursday that will start in February and end in October, BBC News reported. Vaccinated citizens in Australia can go home from 27 February without needing to undergo state mandatory hotel quarantine. Jabbed citizens elsewhere will be allowed in from 13 March, said PM Jacinda Ardern. People will still have to self-isolate for 10 days but can do so at home. The announcement comes after growing criticism of Wellington’s controversial closed-border policy to keep out the coronavirus. New Zealand’s borders have been shut for nearly two years due to the pandemic.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 385.6 million, and the death toll is now above 5.7 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 75.7 million cases and 894,334 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that 212 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 63.9% of the total population.
Some 88.6 million have received a booster, equal to 41.8% of the fully vaccinated.