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COVID-19 RULES

Lockdowns and restrictions across Europe ‘averted 3 million deaths’

Lockdowns and restrictions on daily life prevented around 3.1 million deaths in 11 European countries, according to a new modelling study published Monday, as most nations tiptoe out of the strict measures to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.

Lockdowns and restrictions across Europe 'averted 3 million deaths'
Members of the Catalan regional police force Mossos d'Esquadra inform tourists about the lockdown in Barcelona on March 15, 2020

Research by Imperial College London, whose scientists are advising the British government on the virus, found that restrictions such as stay-at-home orders had worked to bring the epidemic under control. 

Using European Centre of Disease Control data on deaths in 11 nations in the period up to May 4, they compared the number of observed deaths in the countries against those predicted by their model if no restrictions had been 
imposed.

They estimated that approximately 3.1 million deaths had been averted by the policies.

The 11 nations were: Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, which did not impose a strict lockdown as seen in other countries.

Researchers also calculated that the interventions had caused the reproduction number — how many people someone with the virus infects — to drop by an average of 82 percent, to below 1.0.

“Our results show that major non-pharmaceutical interventions, and lockdown in particular, have had a large effect on reducing transmission,” the authors said in the study, published in Nature Research.

“Continued intervention should be considered to keep transmission of SARS-CoV-2 under control.”

The researchers estimated that cumulatively between 12 and 15 million people had been infected in the period — or between 3.2 and four percent of the population of the 11 nations.

This fluctuated significantly between countries, with only 710,000 people in Germany thought to have caught the virus, or 0.85 percent of the population. 

That compares with Belgium, with the highest infection rate of the countries at eight percent, and Spain, where some 5.5 percent of the population, or 2.6 million people, were estimated to have been infected. 

'Large health benefits'
 
The authors said that since interventions such as restrictions on public events and school closures were imposed in quick succession, it is difficult to tease out the effect of each one separately. 
 
But they found that lockdown measures taken as a whole did have an identifiable and “substantial” effect, reducing transmission by an estimated 81 percent.  
 
The authors acknowledged that one limitation of their model was that it assumes each measure had the same effect on all countries, whereas in reality “there was variation in how effective lockdown was in different countries”.
 
In a separate study, also published in Nature, researchers from UC Berkeley used a different method — econometric modelling used to assess how policies affect economic growth — to evaluate containment policies in China, South 
Korea, Italy, Iran, France and the United States. 
 
Researchers used data on daily infection rates and the timings of hundreds of localised interventions up until April 6. They then compared infection growth rates before and after those policies were implemented. 
 
By comparing this to a scenario in which no policies had been put in place, they estimated that the interventions may have prevented or delayed around 62 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the six countries.
 
They said this corresponded to averting around 530 million total infections.

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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

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.

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