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WHO’s Europe director urges vigilance as COVID surges across Europe

Calls grow for greater measures against wave of cases of omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5

Leila Nezirevic   | 29.06.2022
WHO’s Europe director urges vigilance as COVID surges across Europe


As European countries experience a surge of new COVID-19 infections, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, speaks to Anadolu Agency and warns that COVID cases could soar throughout the summer and lead to more deaths.

Q: How worried should we be about omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 and this sudden COVID-19 surge in Europe?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: New COVID-19 cases have doubled in the last month across Europe.

We should be worried about any increases seen in COVID-19 activity in Europe, and it’s a stark reminder that we are not yet out of the woods. Increasing incidence in people who are at risk of severe COVID-19 will lead to increased hospitalizations, more disruption to essential health services, and unfortunately may lead to excess deaths.

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe - Anadolu Agency.

The most important message I can give to the people is to get vaccinated, particularly individuals who have other chronic diseases and people who are older. Several countries in the European region, particularly in the eastern part of the region, still have low uptake of the vaccine in these priority groups (<50%). The vaccines provide the best possible protection against severe disease and death from the virus.

Q: Can you explain what factors contributed to this sudden summer COVID wave in Europe?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: We are seeing two things this summer, which is also a pattern we observed over the past two summers: 1) the spread of a new variant, this time the sub-lineages of omicron called BA.4 and BA.5, and 2) increased travel, gatherings and events held over the summer months.

Q: Are the new omicron subvariants likely to be more severe and why?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: Regardless of the variant of SARS-COV-2, COVID-19 can be a very serious disease and can lead to severe short- and long-term consequences on health.

That’s why we mustn’t get complacent. For individuals, this means getting vaccinated and seeking an additional dose if it is available, exercising hand hygiene, and wearing a mask in crowded or cramped places where social distancing isn’t possible. For governments, this means continued surveillance of community transmission to identify any hotspots quickly and put in place the necessary control measures.

Q: Have the governments relaxed measures too quickly and why?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: All governments must make public health decisions suited to their own epidemiological situation, unique contexts, and cultures. Their decisions, however, should be rooted in science.

As countries across the European region have lifted the social measures that were previously in place, the virus will transmit at high levels over the summer. High population immunity and the choices made to lower the risk to older people are key to preventing further deaths this summer.

Whether countries relax or tighten measures, we can ALL do our part to protect ourselves and others by getting vaccinated and following some simple practices like regular hand-washing to reduce the risk of infection.

Q: What is likely to happen in terms of the COVID vaccine and are we likely to need boosters?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: The primary public health objectives of COVID-19 vaccination programs in every country should remain to reduce severe disease and deaths and to maintain essential services.

Thankfully, despite the emergence of new variants of concern, and although infections may occur among people who are vaccinated, the COVID-19 vaccines continue to protect people very well against severe disease. The highest priority in every country should therefore still be to ensure and provide the primary series and a booster dose to the highest-priority target population groups.

Q: How does the future look in terms of the virus’ evolution?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: Further virus evolution and variants, including variants of concern, are expected because we continue seeing significant evolution between and within SARS-COV-2 variants. However, the trajectory of this evolution remains uncertain, and the characteristics of future variants cannot yet be predicted.

The WHO continues to emphasize the importance of testing and surveillance so that we can track the virus, its spread, and its evolution. This information and analyses remain critical to effectively end the acute phase of the pandemic.

Q: Can you please tell me anything else that you think is important to mention when it comes to COVID-19?

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge: Long COVID can be devastating and debilitating for individuals young and old. Governments must take it seriously and provide integrated care, psychosocial support, and sick leave for those patients with long COVID. The WHO continues to work with partners and patient groups to accelerate research and develop clinical best practices for rehabilitation.

Long COVID is a complex condition presenting several symptoms and affecting multiple organs and systems. It occurs in individuals with a history of SARS-Cov-2 infection, usually, three months from the onset of COVID-19 symptoms and that lasts for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.

Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive dysfunction but also others that generally have an impact on everyday functioning.

Studies are ongoing but based on a limited evidence base, including a rapid review by the UK Health Security Agency. The data would suggest that getting vaccinated for COVID-19 before naturally acquired infection means you’re less likely to develop the symptoms of long COVID.

The WHO is working to expand understanding regarding the global prevalence of this condition.

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