WHO issues warning amid rising cases, slow jab rates in Europe
The World Health Organization warned on Monday that 236,000 more people could die from COVID-19 in Europe by December, sounding the alarm over rising infections and stagnating vaccine rates across the continent.
The warning came as the world passed the grim milestone of 4.5 million deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to a tally on Monday.
Infections rates are ticking up globally again, as the highly transmissible Delta variant takes hold – especially among the unvaccinated – preying on populations where anti-virus measures have been relaxed.
In South Africa, scientists are monitoring a new coronavirus variant with an unusually high mutation rate.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases said on Monday that C.1.2. can mutate almost twice as fast as other global variants.
Its frequency remains relatively low, however, and it has so far been found in under 3 percent of genomes sequenced since it was first picked up in May – though this was up from 0.2 to 2 percent last month.
But it has been detected in all of South Africa's provinces, as well as in China, Britain, New Zealand and Mauritius.
The head of WHO Europe said on Monday that infections and deaths were on the rise again in Europe, particularly in poorer nations in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
"Last week, there was an 11 percent increase in the number of deaths in the region – one reliable projection is expecting 236,000 deaths in Europe, by December 1," WHO Europe director Hans Kluge said.
Europe has already registered around 1.3 million COVID-19 deaths to date.
Of WHO Europe's 53 member states, 33 have registered an incidence rate greater than 10 percent in the past two weeks, Kluge said.
High transmission rates across the continent were "deeply worrying, particularly in the light of low vaccination uptake in priority populations in a number of countries."
Kluge said the Delta variant was partly to blame, along with an "exaggerated easing" of restrictions and measures and a surge in summer travel.
While around half of people in the WHO's Europe region are fully vaccinated, uptake in the region has slowed.
"In the past six weeks, it has fallen by 14 percent, influenced by a lack of access to vaccines in some countries and a lack of vaccine acceptance in others."
Only 6 percent of people in lower and lower-middle income countries in Europe are fully vaccinated, and some countries have only managed to vaccinate one in 10 health professionals.
Kluge stressed that since anti-COVID measures were being relaxed in many places, "the public's vaccination acceptance is crucial."
"Vaccine scepticism and science denial is holding us back from stabilizing this crisis. It serves no purpose, and is good for no one."
The WHO and UNICEF urged European countries to make teachers a priority group for vaccinations so schools can stay open.
As the summer holidays end, the agencies said it was "vital that classroom-based learning continue uninterrupted."