Officials warn of threat to Europe from variant COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus
SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus


The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) today raised the risk of spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants to very high, as COVID-19 activity in the United Kingdom, where the B117 variant is dominant, keeps a tight hold despite the country's third lockdown,

Meanwhile, nations in other parts of the world, including China, announced new steps to beat back the stubborn spread of the virus.

ECDC ups variant threat to 'very high'

In its first update of its SARS-CoV-2 variant risk assessment today, the ECDC said the more transmissible variants have led to deteriorating epidemiological situations. Based on new information, the risk of B117 introduction and community spread is very high and impact on health systems is considered high.

For the 501Y.V2 variant first found in South Africa, cases have been confirmed in 10 European countries, with one cluster under investigation in France and the United Kingdom and Israel also reporting cases or clusters of non-travel related 501Y.V2 infections.

Though the United Kingdom has recently seen cases retreat from record daily highs, hailed as a promising sign, an updated analysis from Imperial College London released yesterday said SARS-CoV-2 prevalence is still very high, with no evidence of decline. The group's report covers the first 10 days of the country's third lockdown.

They said they saw a slight initial decline, followed by a plateau or possible increase in cases. They note that Facebook mobility data show a marked decrease by the end of December, followed by rise that followed the start of the working year in early January.

Increased prevalence was associated with large households, poorer neighborhoods, and Black and Asian ethnicity. Positivity rates were higher in healthcare and nursing home workers, as well as other key workers.

"Until prevalence in the community is reduced substantially, health services will remain under extreme pressure and the cumulative number of lives lost during this pandemic will continue to increase rapidly," they wrote.

In another UK development, researchers from the University of Oxford said today that lateral flow tests will probably identify the most infectious cases in people with higher viral loads, despite concerns about test accuracy, according to Reuters. The news comes as British health officials consider mass rapid testing as a way to exit the current lockdown.

Britain was the first nation in Europe to experience a surge that was partly linked to the B117 variant, which is now fueling outbreaks on other parts of the continent. Portugal is among the nations experiencing such a spike, and the country's health minister, Marta Temido, PhD, said on a radio broadcast yesterday that about 20% of cases consist of the more transmissible variant, according to Reuters. She predicted that the number could rise to 60% as early as next week.

A representative from one of Portugal's doctors unions said today that hospitals are overwhelmed, without enough staff to add more intensive care unit (ICU) beds, according to a separate Reuters report. The government announced the closure of all schools and universities for 2 weeks to curb the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, neighboring Spain today—for the second straight day—reported a record single-day high of  44,357 new cases, according to Anadolu Agency, which said many of the country's hospitals are overwhelmed and that 157 variant cases have been identified. Spanish health officials warned  B117 could become the dominant strain by the middle of March.

China announces Lunar New Year restrictions

In China, which has seen a spike in cases in some of its northeastern provinces, as well as Beijing, health officials today reported three cases from Shanghai, the city's first in 2 months, according to the New York Times. Two of Shanghai's cases are in people who work at different hospitals, and the other is a contact. The cases were found during routine testing of hospital employees.

China's National Health Commission said today that of 106 new local cases, most are from ongoing clusters and outbreaks, including Heilongjiang province (68), Jilin province (33), Hebei province (20), and Beijing (2).

Given the ongoing spread of the virus, China's government today announced some travel restrictions ahead of the Lunar New Year, according to CNN. Some people who plan to travel back to the countryside are required to show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test within 7 days of departure, including those from medium- and high-risk areas, quarantine center staff, cold-chain food industry workers, and transportation workers.

Africa faces second surge, longer vaccine wait

At a World Health Organization (WHO) African regional office media briefing today, director Matshidiso Moeti, MBBS, said the continent's cases topped the first wave in December and are still accelerating, mainly from fatigue from COVID-19 restrictions and holiday travel and gatherings. Though South Africa is the epicenter, other parts of the region are experiencing increases in cases.

She said Africa is expecting phased delivery of 600 million COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2021 through the WHO-led COVAX program, with doses from the initial 30 million supply to begin arriving in countries by March, targeting health workers and other high-priority groups.

Moeti said countries have made progress on preparations to deliver and use the vaccines, with about 42% of regions ready for rollout, up from 33% 2 months ago, but below the goal of 80%. 

In other global developments:

  • In the United Arab Emirates, where cases are spiking, hospitals in Dubai have postponed nonessential surgeries and have banned live music at bars and clubs, according to Reuters. Elsewhere in the Middle East, hard-hit Lebanon has extended its lockdown.

  • Cuba said its locally produced vaccine, called Sovereign-02, is in phase 2 trials and the country has a goal of producing 100 million doses this year, according to CNN. Also, Hungary became the first country in the European Union to approve Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, according to the BBC.

  • The global total today topped 97 million cases and is now at 97,283,614 with 2,084,400 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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