Europe’s vaccination campaign is “unacceptably slow” while rising infection rates in most countries across the region mean its virus situation is “more worrying than we have seen in several months”, the World Health Organization has said.
The WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said on Thursday that vaccines “present our best way out of this pandemic. Not only do they work, they are highly effective in preventing infection. However, their rollout is unacceptably slow.”
Kluge said falling infections among the over-80s in Europe reflected “early signs of the impact of vaccination”, while data from the UK’s campaign suggested vaccines had so far “saved, at the very least, over 6,000 lives among people over 70”.
He said that across the WHO’s European region, which comprises 53 countries including Russia and several central Asian nations, barely 10% of people had received one dose while just 4% were fully vaccinated. Only 60% of lower and lower-middle income countries in the region had begun vaccinating.
“Let me be clear: we must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now,” Kluge said, urging all governments to share excess shots.
The WHO said that five weeks ago the weekly number of new cases in Europe had dipped to under 1m, but had surged again to 1.6m, with nearly 24,000 deaths. The more contagious variant first detected in the UK is present in 50 countries.
Dorit Nitzan, the WHO Europe’s regional emergency director, said the risk of new variants occurring “increases with the rate at which the virus is replicating and spreading, so curbing transmission through basic disease control is crucial”.
The organisation said 27 countries in the region were in partial or full nationwide lockdown, with 21 imposing night-time curfews. In the past fortnight, 23 countries had tightened restrictions compared with 13 that had started to ease them.
“As long as vaccine coverage remains low, we need to apply the same public health and social measures as we have in the past,” Kluge said. “My message to governments is that now is not the time to relax. We can’t afford not to heed the danger.”
The WHO’s statement came a day after France extended existing tougher measures across the country, closing schools for at least three weeks and banning domestic travel after Easter, and as leading scientists called for a full lockdown in Germany.