“We were prepared for a challenging start to 2021 and it has been just that”, Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said on Thursday during a virtual press briefing from Copenhagen.
Although new tools against the disease are now available, including several vaccines, and knowledge about the virus has increased, “we remain in the grip of COVID-19”, he said.
“This moment represents a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic – where science, politics, technology and values must form a united front, in order to push back this persistent and elusive virus”, he told journalists.
More lockdowns expected
Last year, more than 26 million cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the WHO European Region, which comprises 53 countries.
Over a quarter of States are seeing very high incidence of the disease and strained health systems.
Currently, more than 230 million people are living in countries under full national lockdown, and more governments are expected to announce lockdowns in the coming week.
Dr. Kluge said the impact of the recent holiday period, characterized by family gatherings and the relaxing of preventive measures such as physical distancing and wearing masks, cannot yet be determined.
Virus mutation ‘alarming’
Regarding the virus mutation, he reported the SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern has been detected in 22 countries in the region.
“This variant is ‘of concern’ as it has increased transmissibility. So far, we understand there is no significant change to the disease this variant produces, meaning the COVID-19 is not more, nor less, severe,” he said.
“It spreads across all age groups, and children do not appear to be at higher risk. It is our assessment that this variant of concern may, over time, replace other circulating lineages – as seen in the United Kingdom, and increasingly in Denmark.”
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However, the increased transmissibility has sparked concern over the impact on health systems already under stress.
Dr. Kluge urged countries to take action to reduce transmission, and to step-up vigilance to identify new variants. His recommendations include investigating cases of unusually rapid virus transmission and unexpected disease presentation, as well as sharing data.
“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries, which may not have been seen to date”, he said, emphasizing basic measures promoted throughout the pandemic, such as wearing masks, limiting gatherings, and conducting adequate testing and contact tracing