GENEVA - The World Health Organization warns the European region is probably in the most acute phase of COVID-19 transmission and drastic measures must be taken to control the spread of the pandemic.
More than 26 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the European region, including over 580,000 deaths. The World Health Organization reports levels of transmission remain extremely high. As a consequence, it notes countries and territories across the region are enacting full lockdown measures, affecting more than 230 million people.
WHO regional director for Europe Hans Kluge says the year ahead offers new opportunities and tools, such as vaccines for controlling the pandemic. At the same time, he notes new challenges posed by the virus itself are of great concern.
He says the COVID-19 virus has changed. He says it is normal for viruses that circulate to mutate over time. While little is known about the impact of the new variant, he says the new strain appears to spread more quickly and be more contagious.
"Twenty-two countries in the WHO European region have detected this new variant. This variant is of concern and it has increased transmissibility. So far, we understand there is no significant change to the disease this variant produces — meaning the COVID-19 is not more nor less severe," he said.
Kluge says the new viral strain spreads across all age groups and children do not appear to be at higher risk. Over time, he says the variant may replace other lineages, as seen in Britain and Denmark.
Senior Emergency Officer in WHO’s European Region Catherine Smallwood says new variants are assessed for any public health impact. She says the strain identified in Britain has been studied for its transmissibility and impact on COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed.
"There is probably quite promising evidence that the vaccines will work. At the moment, there is no evidence for any of the variants that have emerged that there will be any decreased effectiveness of the vaccine. But studies are still going on and we expect to hear more after the studies are confirmed," she said.
The vaccine rollout will have little immediate effect on the control of transmission and spread of COVID-19. WHO officials say that will be achieved by following public health measures, such as wearing masks and social distancing.
However, vaccines will protect the most vulnerable people from becoming severely ill and dying in hospital. Vaccines also hold the promise of one day bringing this devastating pandemic to an end.