The World Health Organization's European branch on Thursday said more needed to be done to deal with the alarming situation brought on by a recently discovered variant of the novel coronavirus.
Speaking at a press conference, the WHO's regional director for Europe Hans Kluge (pictured below), called the current situation “a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic,” as Europe was both challenged by surging cases and new variants of the virus causing Covid-19.
“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,” Kluge said, referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK.
While it is natural for viruses to change over time and the variant is not believed to cause more severe symptoms, its “increased transmissibility,” means it still raises concern, according to WHO Europe.
“Without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurised health facilities,” Kluge said.
The variant has caused concern around Europe including:
The Covid-19 risk level in Denmark is now at the maximum level 5 with PM Mette Frederiksen saying the move was due in part to concerns about the new variant first detected in the UK. Level 5 indicates “widespread infection in society”, as well as “a risk that treatment capacity at hospitals will be exceeded”.
As of January 5th at least 86 cases of the variant have been found by Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI), which genetically sequences a large number of samples from positive Covid-19 test swabs to identify the variant of the virus present.
Because SSI sequenced around 11 percent of all positive samples in the last six weeks of 2020, the actual number of people infected with the variant is likely to be around 9 times higher, the agency has said.
Health minister Magnus Heunicke said that the more infectious B117 variant “will” become the dominant form of Covid-19 in Denmark.
Initially the spread of the variant anglais, as it is called in France, caused little consternation, partly because France carries out far less sequencing after testing for the virus to identify which variants are at large.
But this week Health Minister Olivier Véran said authorities were now closely monitoring its spread but said only a dozen or so cases of the new mutation had been identified.
“It is a variant that worries us and for which we are deploying very significant logistical and diagnostic resources,” he said.
Two clusters have been identified – one in the greater Paris Île-de-France region and one in Brittany – comprising 19 people and the variant has also been detected on the island of Corsica.
One French scientist sounded the alarm, telling the media France was two months behind the UK in terms of the spread of the new variant.
Sweden has now reported 17 cases of the new coronavirus strain first detected in the UK and thought to be more infectious. Of these, 12 cases have a direct link to travel from the UK, but five cannot be linked to travel.
Public Health Agency's Karin Tegmark Wisell said that this was still not considered as “a general spread in society”, but acknowledged that only around one percent of tests are sequenced, but said “we have special tracks to identify groups where there are greater risks that the variations may exist” such as returning travellers. For comparison, Denmark sequences around 11 percent of its tests, noted public radio show Vetenskapsradion's Camilla Widebeck, who put the question to the Public Health Agency.
One case has also been recorded of the variant first detected in South Africa, which was directly linked to returning travel.
On January 6th Norway recorded its highest ever number of daily Covid-19 cases – 930 in one day.
An expert told pubic broadcaster NRK that a connection is possible between the increase in daily cases and two new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 that have been detected in Norway after initially being identified in other countries.
Health authorities said on Tuesday that one case of a new variant of Covid-19, first detected in South Africa and more contagious than other forms, has been detected in the Nordic country, along with further cases of the B117 variant first reported in the United Kingdom.
The variants of the coronavirus which were first identified in the UK and South Africa have been detected in several Swiss cantons.
As of January 6th, 28 cases of the variant have been detected in Switzerland, although experts suspect there will be many more cases detected soon.
Geneva health authorities have said it is likely community transmission of the variants was already taking place in Switzerland.
As of January 5th five cases of the British and South African coronavirus variants have been discovered in Austria. Austria's Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said there was “very widespread concern”.
In Span the new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in the United Kingdom has been circulating between people who had not travelled from the UK or been in contact with those who have, since at least mid-December according to new research.
Imported cases have already been detected in Valencia, Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia and most recently Catalonia but preliminary analysis by the Fisabio Foundation research institute in Valencia, also suggested that the same mutation has been found in those with no connection to the UK.
What measures are proposed to fight new variant?
The measures proposed by the WHO's Kluge were those “with which we are all familiar,” listing the adherence to generalised mask wearing, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distance and hand washing as prudent but in need of being intensified.
These measures coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, “will work if we all get involved,” Kluge said.
The WHO's European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, and 22 countries in the region have recorded cases of the new variant.
According to the organisation's estimates, the new variant could replace others across the region.
Europe has been hard hit by the Covid pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to WHO's monitoring.
WHO Europe also estimates that excess mortality in 2020 was five times that of 2019 and three times that of 2018.