Statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
Copenhagen, 11 February 2021
Even though we’re still seeing more than 1 million cases reported every week across the European Region, the overall case incidence of COVID-19 has been declining for 4 consecutive weeks, and for 2 weeks in a row, the number of new deaths has decreased.
Whilst this is good news, the decline in cases conceals increasing numbers of outbreaks and community spread involving variants of concern, meaning that we need to watch overall trends in transmission carefully and avoid rash decisions.
The numbers we are seeing are still too high. Two days ago, 40 countries in the European Region reported 3610 deaths in 24 hours, caused by COVID-19.
At this point, the overwhelming majority of European countries remain vulnerable. Right now, it’s a thin line between the hope of a vaccine and a false sense of security.
Based on information from 29 out of the 37 countries currently vaccinating in the European Region today, 7.8 million people have completed their immunization series. That’s equivalent to only 1.5% of the population of those 29 countries.
Yesterday, 17 states and territories in the WHO European Region had a 14-day incidence larger than 400 reported cases for every 100 000 people. This warrants measured decision-making at this critical juncture.
Time and again have we seen countries reopen too fast and lose hard-earned gains. I must reiterate that decisions to lift public health and social measures need to be underpinned with data, based on epidemiological assessment and health system capacity. Criteria need to be evidence-based – and not based on observations of relative progress.
Many of you worry about new variants, about how infectious they are, whether the disease they cause is more severe, whether vaccines will be less effective against them. Some variants are indeed of particular concern. We have all followed the reports on how receptive the variant B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, is to the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.
This particular variant of concern has been reported in 19 European countries. Although community transmission in Europe is not yet widespread, the variant has increasingly been linked to outbreaks in communities. Irrespective of the variant, we must continue to suppress the virus.
Yesterday, the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization concluded, based on all available evidence, that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine can be used in persons aged 18 years and above, including people older than 65 years.
What does the emergence of these variants mean?
It means that we must do everything in our power to reduce transmission and delay mutations that may influence vaccine efficacy. Unless we halt transmission now, the expected benefits from vaccinations in controlling this pandemic may not be evident.
This means that manufacturers will have to adjust to the virus’ evolution. This also underlines the importance of maintaining a diverse portfolio of vaccines of varied technology platforms for use in a range of settings.
Vaccines are essential, but as of now, they are not sufficient to control the pandemic. They are only one among many tools at our disposal.
What has not changed is how the virus transmits. Temporary setbacks do not change the fact that current responses are having an impact. Despite new variants, WHO’s guidance on social and public health measures remains unchanged.
There is some more good news.
Thirty-five state parties have extended their genetic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, as have 18 others supported by WHO’s reference laboratories, due to the growing importance of identifying new variants.
Based on data from nearly 20 countries, the hospitalization rate due to COVID-19 fell from 13 to 11 per 100 000 people, between the 3rd and 4th week of January. A decrease, yes, but many of our hospitals continue to struggle.
The number of vaccine doses given has also exceeded the number of reported cases in the Region: some 41 million doses administered, versus 36 million reported cases.
Vaccination of priority groups is already saving lives. But the sheer scale of COVID-19 vaccine deployment is enormous; vaccinations will take time.
Vaccines offer a way to emerge faster from this pandemic. But only if we ensure that all countries, irrespective of income level, have access to them.
The divide between high-, middle- and low-income countries is clearer than ever. Unfair access to vaccines can backfire. The longer the virus lingers, the greater the risk of dangerous mutations.
Equitable access is a moral imperative, one that mitigates the pandemic’s impact on all of us, not just some.
Together with the European Union, today we launch a €40 million programme to ensure effective deployment of COVID-19 vaccines in 6 countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. This complements ongoing work through COVAX and the EU sharing mechanism, with an initial focus on readiness, information campaigns, supplies and training of health workers.
Yesterday, I also signed an agreement with the EU to support the countries of the western Balkans in their efforts. In addition, we have a joint EU–WHO programme for the response across the central Asia region.
The time to scale up and accelerate vaccine production is now. We’re calling for a joint European effort to get vaccination programmes on track. Manufacturers and health-care providers need to share clinical data and dossiers with us so that we can accelerate Emergency Use Listings. We are also identifying smaller production sites with enough capacity and quality criteria in place to help manufacturing of vaccine components. Again, the key here is solidarity and pragmatism, through synergizing vaccine production capacity.
Finally, a very happy birthday to Sister Andre, Europe’s oldest person, a French nun who celebrates her 117th birthday today. A COVID-19 survivor, there’s a remarkable lesson to be learned from Sister Andre, who, during her illness, selflessly showed more concern for her fellow nursing home residents than for her own life.
Look after each other, and please stay safe.