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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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COVID-19

How much should we be concerned about rising Covid-19 rates in Sweden?

Covid-19 cases are once again escalating in more than a hundred countries, including Sweden, with the new Omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5, both harder to track and more resistant to vaccines. Should we be worried?

How much should we be concerned about rising Covid-19 rates in Sweden?

How much reason is there to worry that Covid-19 is back? 

It depends if you are an ordinary citizen or a hospital manager. 

Peter Nilsson, an epidemiology professor at Lund University, told The Local that as over 85 percent of the Swedish population had received at least two doses, he did not expect the number becoming seriously ill to return to the levels seen in 2020 and 2021.  

“The Swedish population has a high degree of vaccination immunisation and it is unlikely that the situation will get serious,” he said. 

But there is a nonetheless a risk that the rising rates of infection will put pressure on some hospitals, particularly when many staff are off for their summer breaks. 

“More people will need hospital care as a result, and if healthcare staff fall ill with Covid-19 at the same time as there is holiday staffing at many hospitals and care facilities, this may mean an increased burden on healthcare,” Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Lindblom said in a press release

Patrik Söderberg, the head doctor for the Stockholm Region, warned that the the rise in the number of patients with Covid-19 in hospitals was “a clear step in the wrong direction”. 

How and why are Covid-19 rates rising in Sweden? 

According to the Swedish Public Health Authority, over 3,000 cases of Covid-19 were reported in Sweden in the final two weeks of June, a 41% rise from the two previous weeks.

The reason is that the new BA.5 variant of omicron has become dominant in Sweden, and there is growing evidence that BA.5 is better at infecting both those who have received a vaccine and those who have previously contracted Covid-19. 

There is also clear evidence, however, that vaccinations continue to offer protection against life-threatening conditions and death, even with BA.5, and there is currently no evidence that the variant causes a more severe version of the disease. 

Although Lindblom said it was impossible to predict the length of time the virus would continue to spread, he warned that Sweden could see rising infection rates for several weeks to come. 

What’s been happening outside Sweden? 

According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, the pandemic is changing, but not over. 

“Cases are on the rise in 110 countries, causing overall global cases to increase by 20%,” he said in a media briefing at the end of last month. “Our ability to track the virus is under threat as reporting and genomic sequences are declining, meaning it’s becoming harder to track Omicron and analyse future emerging variants.”

Some countries have responded by extending or bringing back Covid-19 restrictions. 

China has maintained some of the toughest restrictions, and while other countries have mostly been easing them, but as cases continue to rise, some may soon bring back restrictions such as mandatory masks and stricter contact tracing. 

Italy has extended the need to use masks on public transport until the end of September. Germany and Ireland are thinking about making them mandatory for a few months to curb the new, highly resistant variants.

The WHO and several other organisations are encouraging more vaccination campaigns and booster shots.

So is there a risk of Covid-19 restrictions returning in Sweden too? 

Sweden saw some of the world’s most relaxed regulations during the pandemic, and it looks unlikely that even those will be reimposed. The only change so far is that hospitals have once again made masks mandatory. 

What is being done to keep Covid-19 under control? 

Adults in risk groups and those over 65 are encouraged to take a top-up dose starting on September 1st. A fourth booster will be free for adults of various ages soon after that.

An autumn immunisation policy is also being developed, Anders Lindblom told Svenska Dagbladet, with details to be announced in the coming weeks. 

What Covid-19 recommendations still apply in Sweden? 

  • Everyone above the age of 12 should receive a Covid-19 vaccination, according to the Swedish Public Health Agency. It lessens the chance of developing fatal diseases and dying.
  • Anyone experiencing symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, fever or cough are recommended to stay at home,  even those who have been vaccinated or who have previously had COVID-19.
  • Unvaccinated people are more likely to suffer significant COVID-19 illness. An unvaccinated person should take extra precautions and stay away from crowded indoor spaces to prevent getting sick.
  • The general population is no longer advised to undergo PCR testing, even if they experience symptoms, with the exception expectant mothers, those working in health and elderly care, and those providing care for patients with weakened immune systems who are at a high risk of developing a serious illness. 
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