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WHO urges caution as Europe's virus deaths pass 600,000

WHO's European chief reiterates no evidence reported so far that UK variant of coronavirus causes more severe disease

Peter Kenny   | 14.01.2021
WHO urges caution as Europe's virus deaths pass 600,000


With COVID-19 death toll in Europe exceeding 600,000 and still climbing, the World Health Organization's European head on Thursday said people have new tools to face a "challenging start" that needs vigilance despite some stabilization in the number of infections.

"Transmission across the region has sustained at very high rates of infection," Hans Kluge said at a virtual news conference, speaking for the massive region which extends across Europe from the Arctic to the Russian Far East.

"Where there are signs of stabilization or even decreased incidence in some countries, this needs to be taken with some caution," said Kluge, reminding over 580,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in 2020 and more than 280 million people living in countries under full national lockdown.

The impact of the recent holiday period, including gatherings of families, communities, and any relaxation of physical distancing and mask-wearing behavior, cannot yet be determined, he stressed.

Kluge said: "One year from WHO's first news report about this virus, we have new tools at our disposal and considerably more knowledge.

"But we remain in the grip of COVID-19, as cases surge and we tackle new challenges brought by the mutating virus," he said.

The WHO chief said it was a scenario in which "science, politics, technology and values must form a united front, to push back this persistent and elusive virus."

This year brings new tools, such as the vaccine, but the virus also poses new challenges as COVID-19 has changed over time, Kluge said, stressing that the new variant is "not unexpected."

"This is a normal evolution of a virus which tries to adapt to its host, which is the human being. In this case, for the UK variant."

He said: "I do understand the concern around the possible impact of the SARS CoV-2 Variant of Concern (VOC) 202012/01 on our shared public health with 25 countries in the WHO European region, including Russia, reporting the new strain."

Kluge noted that the variant is "of concern" due to its 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. It spreads across all age groups, and children do not appear to be at higher risk."

Kluge said the WHO currently has no evidence that the new variant is causing more severe disease or less.

"So, it's not going to bring a second pandemic, or it is not going to change the way to fight the virus."

"As of today, there is no evidence that the vaccines which are approved will not work, but this is something that we continue to follow and to be very, very vigilant about.

"Ultimately, it is a cruel reminder that the virus is still with us, and 2021 will be another year of the coronavirus, but it will be more manageable, more predictable.

Kluge said that for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, 95% of the 23.5 million doses of vaccines administered globally have been in 10 countries.

"To date, 31 countries in the WHO European region have started rolling out vaccination campaigns," he said.

WHO is making "huge efforts to get the vaccines into every country."

"Collectively, we simply cannot afford to leave any country, any community behind."

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