Europe tracks variant spread as COVID deaths spike in Africa

COVID vaccine prep
COVID vaccine prep

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The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) European office today said that the region's 4-week drop in cases is good news but warned that outbreaks and community transmission involving variants is increasing, requiring a close watch and careful response decisions.

Thin line between hope, false sense of security

At a briefing today, Hans Henri Kluge, MD, MPH, said daily case numbers and deaths are still too high. "At this point, the overwhelming majority of European countries remain vulnerable," he said. "Right now, it’s a thin line between the hope of a vaccine and a false sense of security."

As of now, only 1.5% of the population across 29 of 37 countries that are vaccinating have been immunized, and 17 countries in the region are reporting a 14-day average of more than 400 cases for every 100,000 people.

Hospitalization rates in the region declined between the third and fourth weeks of January, which is good news, but many facilities continue to struggle, he said.

Kluge urged countries not to repeat the mistake of reopening too fast and losing hard-won momentum and said that decisions to lift measures should be based on evidence-based criteria, not just observations.

Variant circulation in Europe includes B1351, which was first identified in South Africa and in early reports seems to partly evade immunity from natural infection, and the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, Kluge said. He added that though B1351 circulation in Europe isn't widespread, officials have increasingly linked it to community outbreaks. "Irrespective of the variant, we must continue to suppress the virus," he said.

At the briefing today, Catherine Smallwood, PhD, WHO Europe's senior emergency officer, said B117 is circulating in half of Europe's countries, according to CNN.

Africa's second wave tops first

At another WHO briefing today, the head of the WHO's African regional office, Matshidiso Moeti, MBBS, said that deaths in Africa were up by 40% last month and that its second surge seems to have peaked on Jan 6 and had grown much faster and was far more lethal than the first surge.

"The increasing deaths from COVID-19 we are seeing are tragic, but are also disturbing warning signs that health workers and health systems in Africa are dangerously overstretched," she said, noting that early information from 21 countries found 66% have inadequate critical care capacity, and 15 have inadequate oxygen production.

Regarding the variants, she said B1351 has been found in eight African countries, and the B117 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, has been found in six.

AstraZeneca to boost production

Officials from AstraZeneca today said it expects to increase global COVID-19 vaccine production capacity to 200 million doses by April, up from 100 million doses a month, according to CNN, based on information from a media call after the company released its 2020 corporate results.

Also, Mene Pangalos, PhD, the company's vice president of biopharmaceuticals research, said the company expects to have updated vaccines against the new variants ready in 6 to 9 months.

Recent preliminary findings from the South African arm of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine trial suggested that the vaccine had little efficacy against mild-to-moderate disease caused by the B1351 variant that's dominant in the country. A mutation thought to be responsible for immune escape has also been found in a limited number of B117 variant cases in the United Kingdom.

In other global headlines:

  • The head of the UK's genetic sequencing program, Sharon Peacock, PhD, told the BBC today that the B117 variant swept the country and will likely sweep the world, and she predicted that officials will be tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants for the next decade.

  • Peru's health minister said yesterday that easier, faster spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants has tripled the consumption of oxygen, with hospitals facing shortages, according to CNN.

  • The global total today rose to 107,648,109 cases, along with 2,363,449 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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