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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Will there be a seventh wave of Covid-19 in Spain?

As Omicron cases drop in Spain, what do leading health experts in the country think the chances are that this sixth coronavirus wave will be the last?

spain seventh wave covid
Spain’s more sceptical epidemiologists haven’t ruled out that another variant could emerge and cause a seventh wave, with Easter pinpointed as a critical moment in the course of the pandemic. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Back in early November 2021, The Local Spain published an article asking whether there would be a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain.

The article was published before the arrival of the highly infectious Omicron variant, which explains why at the time there was a fairly optimistic attitude that the fifth wave would be the last, as Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias put it “the virus is (was) cornered”.

Prestigious medical publication The Lancet even went as far as running an article suggesting that Spain was very close to reaching herd immunity.

How quickly things changed once the Omicron strain arrived in Spain in late November 2021. 

Cases spiked every day for weeks, beating daily infection records and reaching an infection rate among vaccinated and unvaccinated that was unprecedented.

In fact, around half of the more than 10 million Covid-19 infections Spain has had during the pandemic have occurred during this sixth wave.

Even though Spain’s high vaccination rate has helped keep the rate of hospitalisations and deaths from Covid lower than previous waves, the sheer number of cases has meant that there are still plenty of people suffering serious Covid symptoms or dying from the disease, most of whom are not vaccinated.

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The rate of vaccination among Spain’s adult population has stagnated at around 80 percent over the past two months, as has the inoculation rate among children since the Covid-19 jab was approved for them last December. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Around seventy days since the arrival of the Omicron variant in Spain, the infection rate is now dropping considerably day by day – even though the incidence remains very high – leading many to believe that it won’t be long before Spain’s 47 million inhabitants can put the sixth wave behind them. 

But what’s next? Has Omicron’s rampant spread throughout Spain and the world meant that this sixth wave will be the last in the country? Do Spanish health experts believe there could be a seventh wave in Spain?

Will there be a seventh wave?

“A new wave may occur but it’s unlikely, at least before the summer,” Francisco Caamaño, doctor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Santiago de Compostela, told ABC.

“And if it does occur, it would not be as intense as the sixth wave”.

However, Caamaño acknowledged that “we cannot rule out the arrival of a more aggressive variant, which expands easily and therefore leads to more deaths”. 

“In such a scenario, within two weeks we would have it in Spain as the transmission of a virus like this would be largely asymptomatic, which is very difficult to stop,” the health expert concluded.

Covid-19 mutations have occurred to a large extent in countries or areas where group immunity is low, which is why Spain’s Public Health specialists point out that they “will not be sure until we are all vaccinated”.

Although the full vaccination rate in Spain currently stands at around 80.9 percent and 48 percent of Spaniards have had a booster shot, only 54.2 percent of the world’s population, 4.23 billion people, have been fully vaccinated. 

The vaccination rate in many African nations is still below 10 or even 5 percent, and the latest figures from our World in Data show a huge contrast in inoculation rates between developed and developing countries. 

Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organisation (WHO) health systems director, also believes it will be “difficult for there to be a seventh wave, although there may be some outbreaks”.

SPAIN-HEALTH-VIRUS-HOSPITAL

Healthcare workers help a Covid-19 patient to stand up with a medical machine, at Barcelona’s Bellvitge Hospital ICU unit. Milder for most but still highly contagious, Omicron has again filled hospital beds at worrying levels during the sixth wave in Spain. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

“We have seen from the beginning that this pandemic is one of variants and mutations that are emerging frequently,” Bengoa, who is currently a director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, said. 

“New waves have caught us off guard, the latest being Omicron. What is especially important about Omicron is that it is infecting many people, and as Spain has a very high vaccination rate, this makes it difficult for there to be more Covid-19 waves.”

With governments and populations worldwide desperate for an end to the pandemic, talks over when the virus might be reclassified have intensified. 

Spain has stepped up and wants to lead an international push for Covid-19 to be monitored in a similar way to seasonal flu.

Bengoa agrees with this, but warns against doing it too soon. “If one begins to reason that Covid-19 is like the flu, people will lower their perception of risk and begin to remove their masks, not maintain social distance, etc,” he argues. 

“We can talk about comparing it to the flu when we are in a more stable and predictable situation, we are not in that situation yet.”

READ MORE: Spain’s health experts divided over whether Covid-19 should be treated like flu

The general consensus among other epidemiologists in Spain is similar – another wave as serious as the sixth one is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean Covid-19 will disappear.

Joan Carles March, a professor at the Andalusian School of Public Health (EASP), agrees that “in all likelihood there will be future outbreaks”, although he isn’t sure the situation will be serious enough for it to be referred to as a new Covid wave.

“Last August, I was sure that we would have a sixth wave as I saw that we were beginning an autumn in which we would spend more time indoors, which increases the risk of infection.”

Previous coronavirus waves in Spain have tended to develop during or directly after periods of increased social interactions such as Christmas. 

There are other less optimistic health experts who believe that if there were to be another coronavirus wave in Spain, this could develop during Easter week in Spain, coming up in mid-April.

César Carballo, doctor at Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal Hospital told La Sexta TV channel in late January that “there are still 50 percent of people who haven’t been infected with Omicron yet” and that if politicians do nothing to remedy the situation, there will be a seventh wave by Semana Santa (Easter). 

National and regional governments are in the process of easing restrictions currently, with the most notable change being the decision for face masks to no longer be mandatory outdoors. 

“It’s what Einstein used to say, it’s madness to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.”

Other practitioners are also sceptical. “There’s a sense that there is a retention of mutations, but this is unknown and we have no evidence that another variant may not exist and appear, one that can lead us to a seventh wave,” Lorenzo Armenteros, spokesperson for Spain’s Society of General Practitioners, is quoted as saying by Andalusian daily Sur. 

“There is one thing to highlight and that’s that Spain is one of the countries in the world that has had the most epidemiological waves, because different cultural factors and idiosyncrasies intervene.”

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TRAVEL NEWS

OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?

Would you prefer to travel across Europe by train rather than plane this summer? It’s not nearly as simple as it should be, especially given the urgency of the climate crisis, explains specialist Jon Worth.

OPINION: Trains are in fashion so why is rail travel across Europe still so difficult?

Buried away in the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the changes needed in different sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is this startling graphic (below) – it is in the transport sector where the costs to decarbonise are lowest, and even have cost savings associated with them.

So with spring blossom in the trees and thoughts turning to planning summer holiday trips, why not look for a greener route to the sun – by taking the train rather than the plane?

In terms of the public debate, trains are back in fashion.

On the back of Greta Thunberg’s efforts to shame those who fly, and to push greener alternatives instead, media from The New York Times to the BBC are discussing the renaissance of long distance travel by train in Europe, especially night trains.

One railway company – Austria’s ÖBB – has seized the moment and has ordered a fleet of 33 new 7 carriage night trains, the first of which will be on Europe’s tracks from December this year.

The argument for night trains is a simple one, namely that by travelling at night you save yourself a night in a hotel at your destination, and passengers are happy to make a longer trip while they are asleep than they would during the day – when passengers normally will not spend more than 6 hours in a train.

The problem is that beyond ÖBB’s plans comparatively little is happening in long distance cross border night trains in Europe.

There are dozens of further connections where night trains would make sense – think of routes like Amsterdam-Marseille or Cologne to Warsaw for example – but we cannot hope that the Austrians will run those. The European Commission conservatively estimated in December 2021 that at least 10 more night train routes, over and above those planned by ÖBB, would be economically viable, and running those lines would need at least 170 new carriages to be ordered. But so far no operator has been tempted.

The main players in European rail – Deutsche Bahn, Renfe, SNCF and Trenitalia – have no interest in night trains, and even only limited interest in cross border rail at all.

More profitable national daytime services are their focus. The French and Italian governments have been making noises to push SNCF and Trenitalia respectively to run more night time services but – you guessed it – only on national routes.

A few small private players have sought to run night services – Sweden’s Snälltåget and Amsterdam-based European Sleeper for example, but they have struggled to scale.

All of this is on top of the headaches that cross border rail in Europe has faced for years, namely the difficulty of booking tickets on international trains (sometimes two or more tickets are needed), timetables that are not in sync if you have to change train at a border, and lack of clear information and compensation if something goes wrong. Even finding out what trains run is often a headache, as no complete European railway timetable exists.

The EU nominated 2021 as the European Year of Rail with the aim of drawing attention to what rail can do in Europe, but the year closed with scant little progress on any of this multitude of thorny problems – in the main because the railway companies themselves do not want to solve them.

Helping intrepid cross border travellers find their way around these practical barriers has become a kind of cottage industry in the social media era.

Communities of sustainable transport nerds of which I am a part on Facebook and Twitter help each other to find the best routes and cheapest tickets, and the venerable Man in Seat 61 website acts as a kind of FAQ for international rail. 

There’s nothing quite like waking up on a summer morning and seeing the sun on the Mediterranean or the wooded slopes of the Alps out of the window of a night train. But travel experiences like that are not nearly as simple or mainstream as they should be – and it is high time the railway industry stepped up.

Are you hoping to travel across Europe by train instead of plane but finding it difficult to organise? Feel free to get in touch and with Jon’s expertise we’ll try to help you. Email [email protected]

Jon Worth is a Berlin-based blogger who specialises in European train travel. You can his original post on this subject HERE.

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