The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a “tipping point”, amid surging cases in Europe and the fresh challenge of a mutating virus. This is an alarming situation. This means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done. We need to intensify the public health and social measures.
“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. 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.
A challenging start to 2021, new COVID-19 variants and promising vaccine progress
As we enter 2021, over 230 million people in the European Region are living in countries under full national lockdown. More countries set to announce lockdown measures in the coming week. Transmission across the Region has sustained at very high rates of infection. As of 6 January, among all countries and territories in Europe, almost half have a 7-day incidence of over 150 new cases per 100 000 population. 1 quarter are seeing a greater than 10% increase in case incidence over the past 2-week period. Over 1 quarter of all European Member States and territories are seeing very high incidence and strained health systems.
2021 brings with it new opportunities and tools (such as the vaccine) but also new challenges posed by the virus itself.
The new variant increased transmissibility
Like all viruses, as it has circulated, the COVID-19 virus has changed over time. I do understand the concern around the possible impact of the SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern. Twenty-two countries in the WHO European Region have detected this new variant.
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. 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.
Virus alarming situation – Tipping point alarm
This is an alarming situation. We need to do more than we have done. To intensify the public health and social measures. We need to flatten the steep vertical line in some countries, which may not have been seen to date. It is the basic measures, with which we are all familiar. We need to bring down transmission, lift the strain on our COVID-19 wards, and save lives. Adhering to generalized mask wearing, limiting social gathering numbers, physical distancing and handwashing, coupled with adequate testing and tracing systems, proper support for quarantine and isolation, and increasingly vaccination, will work if we all get involved.
Given the limited supply of vaccines and the increasing burden on our health systems, prioritization of vaccination of our health workforce and the most at-risk in our communities is vital. Their courage and sacrifice over the last few months cannot be forgotten; it is time to protect and support the frontline workers with the new tools we have.
Regarding the virus mutation, he reported the SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern detected in 22 countries in the region. “This variant is ‘of concern’ as it has increased transmissibility. “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.”
Health systems already under stress
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. We need to focus on basic measures, such as wearing masks, limiting gatherings, and conducting adequate testing and contact tracing.
WHO chief begins 2021 with plea for ‘less politicking’ over health
In a race to “save lives, livelihoods and end this pandemic”, the head of the UN health agency said that it was important to remember COVID-19 was just one of a number of major disease outbreaks facing communities across the world.
In his first regular media briefing of the new year, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told journalists that WHO was also “picking up and analyzing hundreds of potential signals every week”, concerning other life-threatening illnesses.
But he made clear the pandemic remains “a major public health crisis”. WHO is “working day and night” to accelerate science. WHO will provide solutions on the ground and build global solidarity.
“This is as important for tackling the pandemic as it is for getting essential services back up and running again”, said Tedros. In other words WHO chief means that it is a global tipping point!
Global Tipping point alarm
I urge all governments to work together and live up to their commitments to equitable distribution globally and all pharmaceutical groups to boost supply as quickly as possible and to fully participate in COVAX.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
At the dawn of 2021, scientists and public health experts from inside and outside WHO are continuing to break down the latest data. They have to put forward solutions to “build back greener and stronger health systems”, Tedros said.
“My one hope is that there’s less politicking about health in the year ahead”, he stated. Pointing out that the scientific community has “set a new standard for vaccine development”, he urged the international community to set a new standard for access. “People must come first over short-term profits. It’s in countries self-interest to shun vaccine nationalism”, the UN official said.