Covid still a threat to Europe – travel should be avoided, says WHO | Coronavirus

Covid vaccines in use in Europe appear to protect against all new variants but progress in region remains “fragile” and international travel should be avoided to prevent pockets of transmission quickly spreading into “dangerous resurgences”, the World Health Organization has said.

Weekly official cases in Europe have fallen by almost 60% from 1.7m in mid-April to nearly 685,000 last week with deaths also in decline, the WHO regional director, Hans Kluge, said on Thursday, but incidence rates remained stubbornly high in eight countries.

“The pandemic is not over yet,” Kluge said. “Increased mobility and interactions may lead to more transmission … In the face of a continued threat and new uncertainty we need to exercise caution and rethink or avoid international travel.”

European leaders should “not make the same mistakes that were made this time last year that resulted in a resurgence of Covid-19 and saw health systems, communities and economies once again bear the full force of the pandemic,” he said.

Kluge said the B.1.617 variant first identified in India had been identified in at least 26 of the region’s 53 countries, with most cases linked to international travel but onward transmission also now occurring.

“We are still learning about the new variant, but it is able to spread rapidly and displace the B.1.1.7 lineage [first identified in the UK] that has now become the dominant lineage in Europe,” he said.

Kluge said vaccines were effective against the new strain, with all variants that have so far emerged responding to “available, approved vaccines”. But since only 23% of people in the region have received a vaccine dose and only 11% have had both, governments and citizens must continue to exercise caution.

“Neither testing nor receiving vaccines is a substitute for adherence to measures such as physical distancing and mask wearing in public spaces or healthcare settings,” Kluge said. “Vaccines may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot be blinded by that light.”

Catherine Smallwood, the WHO’s senior European emergency officer, said it was difficult to know yet exactly how transmissible the India variant was.

“There are three different sub-lineages in this particular variant of concern, and one of them has been shown to at least have a capacity to spread quite quickly in the presence of B.1.1.7,” she said. “We’ve seen this in several parts of the UK but also in other countries in the European region.”

The organisation was “tracking it very closely”, she said. “We’re learning about it. We’re pulling as much information as we can together in order to be making some more specific statements around its characteristics both in terms of transmissibility, but also in terms of its ability to evade any immunity.”

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