RPT - REVIEW - Europe In Contends With New COVID-19 Variants, Failing Vaccination Campaign
Muhammad Irfan 14 days ago Sat 13th February 2021 | 11:10 AM
BRUSSELS (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 13th February, 2021) As the European Union is struggling to supply coronavirus vaccine doses to its members, it now also has to contend with new strains of the virus that threaten to make vaccination less effective in the fight against the pandemic.
The latter issue has been particularly concerning, especially in light of South Africa's decision to stop the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout this week after a study published by the Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit demonstrated that this vaccine offered minimal protection against mild-to-moderate forms of COVID-19 caused by the strain known as B.1.351, originally identified in the country last November.
As the World Health Organization has already detected B.1.351 in 19 European countries, the reports from South Africa have direct implications for the bloc's approach toward the pandemic and vaccination.
Another troublesome variant, B.1.1.7, originated closer to home, in the United Kingdom, and is said to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than other coronavirus variants, although more studies are needed to say for sure.
The last of the troublemakers is the P1 strain. It was detected in early January, during a screening in Japan in four people returning from Brazil. This variant is said to possess a mutation allowing it to escape antibodies and has already found its way to Europe.
EPIDEMIOLOGISTS OFFER DIFFERENT OPINIONS
In light of the new strains reaching the European continent, epidemiologists offer different stances on how to view the situation and what kind of measures are to be taken, including new lockdowns.
Some downplay the fears and put it in perspective, like French physician Martin Blachier who tells the press that a curfew and the closure of restaurants and cafes are enough to stem the spread of the pandemic in France, despite the more contagious variants. This will allegedly allow the country to control the pandemic until the vaccination campaign goes into high gear.
Other epidemiologists, such as Arnaud Fontanet in Paris, consider that a severe lockdown might still be needed in March to avoid a crisis in the life-support and intensive care units of hospitals. This debate is identical in most European countries.
"For the moment, the variants that have cropped up are more contagious but the vaccines developed seem to keep most of their efficiency in creating immunity. But the appearance of a new strain of the virus, that would be more virulent, and so more deadly is always possible. The more the pandemic festers, the more the virus replicates, the more chances there are that new strains appear. It is natural selection, in a way.
His sentiment is echoed by Jean-Luc Gala, a virologist at the UCLouvain university in Belgium.
"The vaccines are effective for the moment, but it depends on the mutations of the virus. The time factor is important. As the vaccination progresses, the virus will encounter stronger immunity. The virus will therefore automatically become more aggressive. The increased immunity makes the virus more dangerous ... Vaccination prompts us to hope, but it is not a blank check. We need to move forward as quickly as possible to 'shut down' any new mutants that appear," Gala told Sputnik.
The progress of the vaccination campaign in the European Union is so slow and so chaotic, that the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who had repeatedly trumpeted that everything went according to plan and that Europe shows its strength in unity had to admit on Wednesday the process did not go as well.
"We were too optimistic about mass production. And maybe we also took for granted that the doses ordered would actually arrive on time. We must ask ourselves why, and what lessons we can draw from it," Ursula von der Leyen said at the European Parliament.
It is difficult to continue pretending in Brussels that everything is fine when the United Kingdom has managed to vaccinate about 20 percent of its population with a first dose, while the average EU vaccination level with a first dose is 3.5 percent.
Meanwhile, as the EU flails, Serbia has vaccinated more than the best European member state, by adding Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm to its portfolio. Over 9 percent of the population has been inoculated with one dose and 1.2 percent with two. Other countries, like North Macedonia, are also thinking about searching for help in other places than Brussels, grumbling about the lackluster access to vaccines.
"Small is not beautiful. Nobody cares about the small accession countries in Brussels. And Macedonia does not weigh enough to obtain batches of vaccines, even at a high price, since everybody is trying to vaccinate at the same time. The UK or the US had the financial muscle to pay high prices and support research, which guaranteed them access early. We'd better turn to China and Russia. Europe is the only bloc that was not capable of developing its own vaccine, if you except AstraZeneca, which is above all British and worked with the University of Oxford," a North Macedonian diplomat in Brussels told Sputnik.
With new variants spreading around the continent, it is not unlikely that more countries will adopt similar attitudes.