Europe has become the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic despite an ample supply of vaccines, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday.
Case numbers in the region jumped by more than 50 per cent in the past month, officials said.
“There may be plenty of vaccine available, but uptake of vaccine has not been equal,” WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said on Thursday.
He called for European authorities to “close the gap” in vaccinations. But WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries that have immunised more than 40 per cent of their populations should stop and instead donate their doses to developing countries that have yet to offer their citizens a first dose.
“No more boosters should be administered except to immuno-compromised people,” Mr Tedros said.
He called for vaccine makers to prioritise supplying Covax, the UN-backed effort to share doses globally. Pfizer has sold just 1 per cent of its supply to Covax, while Moderna had provided only a million doses to the developing world as of late October.
Still, despite poorer countries receiving fewer than 1 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines, cases in Africa and South-East Asia fell by 9 per cent last week.
The director of WHO’s 53-country Europe region, Dr Hans Kluge, said the rising Covid-19 case counts are of “grave concern".
“Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic, where we were one year ago,” Dr Kluge said from WHO’s Copenhagen offices. Wearing a mask – unlike his colleagues in Geneva – Dr Kluge warned that coronavirus hospital admission rates more than doubled in the past week and predicted that on that trajectory, the region could suffer another 500,000 pandemic deaths by February.
WHO Europe says the region, which stretches as far east as the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, recorded nearly 1.8 million new weekly cases, an increase of about 6 per cent from the previous week, and 24,000 Covid-19 weekly deaths – a 12 per cent gain.
Dr Kluge said the countries in the region were at “varying stages of vaccination rollout” and that regionwide an average of 47 per cent of people were fully vaccinated. Only eight countries had 70 per cent of their populations fully vaccinated.
The increase in Europe’s case numbers is the fifth consecutive week cases have risen across the continent, making it the only world region where Covid-19 is still increasing.
“We are clearly in another wave,” Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, said on Thursday. “The increased spread is entirely concentrated in Europe.”
Daily case numbers in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have shot up in recent weeks.
At an online briefing on Thursday by the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency, experts urged people to get vaccinated.
“The epidemiological situation in Europe is very concerning now as we head into the winter with increases in infection rates, hospitalisation and we can also see the increase in fatalities,” said Fergus Sweeney, the EMA’s head of clinical studies and manufacturing task force.
He stressed that “it’s very important that everybody gets vaccinated or completes their dose of vaccination if they’ve already had a first dose but not a second dose. It’s really important that we’re all vaccinated because we are not all protected until everyone is protected in that respect”.