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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants
An illustration photo of a positive Covid-19 rapid antigen test. Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

Member comments

  1. I just recovered from COVID …. I am completely vaccinated with the two doses and 1 booster shot …. I was scheduled for my 2nd booster in July (6 months after my first booster) but that has been canceled …. I have not had my blood tested to see if I now have the COVID antibody … Am I still eligible for the second booster shot ? Do I have to wait another 6 months before the second booster shot ? Does, having had COVID now preclude me from booster shots ?

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FACE MASKS

Spain calls for return of face masks indoors as Covid cases rise

Spain’s Health Ministry has recommended Spaniards put their masks back on in indoor public settings, calling for "caution" as the seventh coronavirus wave sees cases and hospitalisations rise across the country.

Spain calls for return of face masks indoors as Covid cases rise

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias on Friday recommended people wear face masks again in indoor public settings as Covid cases and hospitalisations in late June and early July returned to levels not seen since February 2022.

Darias called for “caution” and “responsible mask usage” at a time of increased travel in Spain and with many doctors and nurses booking off time for their summer holidays.

Similar sentiments about the return of face masks indoors have already been shared by the health authorities in some of Spain’s other regions, including Catalonia and Madrid. 

Catalan Health Minister Josep Maria Argimon recommended that those recovering from Covid should continue to wear a mask due to the increase in Covid patients admitted to the ICU in the region, which has increased from 26 to 46 in the space of three weeks.  

Madrid Vice President Enrique Ossorio also suggested that masks should be reintroduced in certain situations, due to the rise of cases seen in the region. Masks should be worn by “vulnerable people, those who are immunosuppressed and those who are pregnant,” he argued.

Ossorio also recommended that the use of face masks be extended to enclosed public spaces and large events.

After two years of compulsory usage in indoor public settings, Spanish authorities lifted the indoor face mask rule on April 20th, having already removed the requirement for outdoors on February 10th

READ ALSO:

Spain’s Health Minister also urged that those aged 80 and over should receive a fourth Covid vaccine dose, but has not specified when this will happen, even though this was already been approved in early June.   

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

“The Health Ministry is going to continue working hand in hand with the advice of experts who’ve introduced an exemplary vaccination strategy,” Darias explained.

On Friday July 1st, 10,249 people were in hospital with Covid-19 in Spain, a figure not seen since February 17th 2022. As for ICU admissions, there were 449 Covid patients in total.

Madrid currently has a fortnightly infection rate of 1,500 cases per 100,00 inhabitants for people aged 60 and over, as Spain stopped counting each and every Covid-19 cases last March and focused only on serious infections and those affecting the elderly. 

That’s why experts are referring to this seventh coronavirus wave as the “silent” one, with no way of truly knowing how many people are getting infected or reinfected in Spain. 

Darias said that the Covid situation is being monitored carefully and that rise in cases is mainly down to the new omicron sub-variants BA4 and BA5, which are more transmissible but are milder than previous variants.

The Minister added that the Spanish government has provided its regions with medicines that are “very important” in the treatment of Covid, such as the antiviral Paxlovid, of which 344,000 sets of pills have been purchased, which help prevent an infected person from developing a serious illness, as well as Evusheld to protect people who do not generate their own antibodies. 

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