Europe in ‘collective denial’ over the state of the COVID pandemic, former WHO official says

People walk past Motta restaurant in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan

A recent view of Milan. (LightRocket via Mairo Cinquetti / SOPA Images / Getty Images)

BARCELONA, Spain – A report released Friday morning by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) found that the continent’s ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is improving compared to December’s rise in new cases and hospitalizations.

However, experts who spoke to Yahoo News painted a less favorable picture, saying that ECDC’s “Country Overview Report” was based on incomplete and inaccurate data from 30 European countries.

“Due to changes in testing strategies and year-end holidays, these numbers are a significant underestimate of the real picture,” a World Health Organization spokeswoman told Yahoo News in an email. WHO works with ECDC to help shape its assessment.

Daniel López Acuna, a former WHO crisis manager now based in Spain, agrees that the new ECDC report that assesses the state of the pandemic does not give an accurate assessment.

“The report attempts to provide an optimistic picture of the state of the COVID-19 infection in Europe, but it contradicts itself by acknowledging delays in reporting, insufficient diagnostic tests, and inadequate diagnostic tests. [holiday behavior] may be hiding the true extent of the problem,” López Acuna told Yahoo News. However, he believes part of the underreporting is due to a “collective denial” across Europe. “All governments are closing the book and the next issue want to move.”

Research Assistant at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, England

A research assistant at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England is preparing samples for genome sequencing, which is no longer available in some European countries. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Over the past year, many European health ministries have stopped reporting important information related to COVID. In Spain, for example, cases are now being monitored only in people over 60 years of age. Among the eight countries that did not report hospitalizations were Germany, Portugal, and Poland; Sweden, which has had the highest number of COVID patients requiring medical attention since early 2021, declared in April that it was no longer a COVID-19 emergency and stopped reporting numbers.

López Acuna points out that the true European COVID landscape is blurred and underestimated thanks to the frequent missing important data in recent ECDC reports. Other health professionals agree.

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“We’re only getting half,” Salvador Macip, director of health sciences at the Open University of Catalonia, told Yahoo News.

“We’re blindsided,” said Martin McKee, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as most health ministries have stopped screening citizens routinely and many countries have halted genome sequencing. The problems with these reports came despite assurances from Germany’s top virologist, who declared in December that the pandemic was finally over. A few days later, reports of a new, more infectious variant, XBB.1.5, hit the US and China saw a surge in new cases following the lifting of its strict anti-Covid policies.

Workers wearing protective masks and suits help Chinese tourists

Airport workers wearing protective masks and suits help Chinese travelers at an airport near Rome. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

The protests in December prompted the Chinese government to reopen the country, allowing citizens to travel freely, and cases immediately increased. Earlier this month, some scientists estimated that China was reporting one million new cases of COVID a day; On December 25, the Financial Times reported that in the first three weeks of December, about 250 million people were infected with COVID in China.

On December 28, Italy became the first European country to require testing of passengers disembarking from China, a requirement that was rejected by the public, including the ECDC, which said the agency “is not justified in screening travelers from China and imposing travel measures.” .”

Criticism quickly subsided after Italy’s first tests of passengers from China showed nearly half tested positive for the virus, and France (where about a third of passengers from China tested positive), Spain, Britain and other European countries followed through on their own testing requirements. .

On January 4, the European Union recommended that all 27 member states adopt a temporary requirement for passengers on flights departing from China to provide proof of a recent negative PCR test prior to departure and to wear high-quality masks on board. It also recommends random testing of incoming passengers and a survey of airport wastewater, with positive results in order.

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So far, 10 of the EU’s 27 countries have implemented the recommended measures, which remain controversial, and some experts are calling for pre-flight testing of all plane passengers and a full reinstatement of the mask-wearing requirement. The measure applies only to flights from China, and only some countries are implementing it, “which is like putting a gate on a wide open field,” Macip said.

A masked passenger hands over his passport to an airport employee.

A passenger hands over his passport to an employee at Milan’s Malpensa Airport after Italy ordered all travelers arriving from China to undergo a COVID-19 antigen swab and virus sequencing on December 29. (Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters)

“It’s not a panacea, but it will help stop cases coming to Europe,” López Acuna said of the China-focused policy.

Passengers originally from China were worried that new versions would be introduced in Europe, but it has not yet been detected.

In its January 3 advisory, the ECDC sought to allay fears about new variants of COVID coming from China.

“Variants circulating in China are already circulating in the EU and do not interfere with the immune response of EU/EEA citizens,” the agency wrote. “In addition, the level of immunization and vaccination of EU/EEA citizens is relatively high, [thus] The increase in cases in China will not affect the epidemiology of COVID-19 in the EU/EEA.”

López Acuna counters that immunity is weakening in Europe, as only 13% of the European population has received a second, stronger bivalent booster that includes the Omicron variants.

An ECDC spokesperson said in an email to Yahoo News that “new cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are likely to increase in the coming weeks.” Overall increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have already been seen in November and December.

People outside the COVID vaccine center in Turin, Italy.

People arrive at a vaccination center in Turin, Italy on December 30 to get a boost of the vaccine against COVID-19. (Jessica Pasqualon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

López Acuna also said that XBB.1.5, or the Kraken variant, which is more severe than previous strains, has become resistant to monoclonal antibody therapy and is “very concerned about the significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths on the East Coast of the United States.”

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ECDC’s advisory on XBB.1.5 earlier this week concluded that it was “unwanted”. The new version is already found in 16 European countries, but “rapid growth in the US does not mean that this version will dominate the EU/EEA,” the agency wrote in an advisory dated Jan. 9. During the pandemic, large differences in the circulation of variants between North America and Europe have been observed several times. “However, this variant risks causing problems in Europe, but not next month,” the statement said.

Lopez Acuña stared at the message. “It’s serious, but not too serious, we don’t need to worry,” he quipped. He added that it was unclear exactly how much Kraken was circulating in the EU because most countries had not sequenced positive test results. Overall, he believes ECDC “acted very naively” at a critical time.

“We are facing two real emergencies of different nature, one of the more serious scenarios being the Kraken,” López Acuna added. “In the second case, you have the dynamics of a pandemic that is creating massive amounts of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. So the threat is not just the Kraken, or the threat to China. It’s a threat to the delicate balance that we’ve got against pandemics. it is the sum of both. That is why the struggle must continue.”

Trams in Erfurt, Germany

A tram in Erfurt, Germany requires customers to wear a ‘mouth and nose guard’. (Image link via Martin Schutt/Getty Images)

As a result, Europe is likely to see more cases of COVID, López Acuna and Macip said. “The more the virus spreads, the more cases there will be in Europe,” Macip said, adding that he was concerned about the impact on already overburdened hospitals. “Whether it will be a tsunami or a small wave,” he said, will depend on a number of factors, including whether Europeans will take precautions, including wearing masks – a recommendation endorsed by the WHO on Friday.

ECDC issued an updated threat assessment on Friday afternoon. “According to the current ECDC assessment, ‘XBB.1.5’ prevails in the EU/EEA, with a moderate probability of a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the next one to two months.” In an accompanying press release, the agency said, “In view of this, ECDC recommends the establishment of appropriate testing and sequencing, increased vaccination rates for COVID-19, and strengthening of infection prevention and control measures. Non-pharmacological measures should be considered, such as staying at home when sick, working remotely, good indoor ventilation, and wearing a mask.”

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