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

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

BARCELONA, Spain – A report published Friday morning by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) discovered that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the continent was improving compared to the peaks of new cases and hospitalizations experienced in December.

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

“[D]With changes in testing strategies,” they continued, “and the end-of-year holidays, these numbers are a vast underestimate of the true picture,” a spokesperson for the World Health Organization told Yahoo News in an email WHO works with ECDC to help them compile their assessments.

Former WHO crisis manager Daniel López Acuña, who now resides in Spain, accepts that the new ECDC report assessing the state of the pandemic does not provide an accurate assessment.

“The report tries to give an optimistic perspective on the state of the transmission of COVID-19 in Europe, but it contradicts itself when it admits that delays in reporting, not enough diagnostic tests and [holiday behavior] may be hiding the true magnitude of the problem,” said López Acuña to Yahoo News. He believes that part of the underreporting, however, is due to “a collective denial” that has settled across Europe. “All the governments want to close this book and go to the next issue”.

A research assistant at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England

A research assistant at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England prepares a sample for genomic sequencing, a practice that is no longer pursued by some European countries. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Last year, many European health ministries simply stopped reporting important COVID information. Spain, for example, now only tracks the cases of citizens over 60 years old. Germany, Portugal and Poland are among eight countries that have not reported hospitalizations; Sweden, which saw the The highest number of COVID patients requiring medical care since the beginning of 2021declared in April that COVID was no longer a health emergency and signed report numbers.

López Acuña points out that thanks to the important data still missing from the recent ECDC reports, the true landscape of Europe’s COVID is blurred and underestimated. Other health experts agree.

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

Since most health ministries have stopped routinely testing citizens and many countries have abandoned genomic sequencing, “we’re going blind,” said Martin McKee, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. . Those reporting problems came despite assurances from Germany’s top virologist, that announced in December that the pandemic was finally over. Days later, reports surfaced of a new and more infectious variant, XBB.1.5, gaining ground in the United States, and China experienced a surge in new cases after abandoning strict zero-COVID policies.

Workers wearing protective masks and gowns help a Chinese traveler

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

Protests in December prompted the Chinese government to reopen the country, allowing citizens to travel freely — and cases quickly piled up. At the beginning of the month, some scientists estimated that China had one million new cases of COVID per day; on December 25, the Financial Times reported that about 250 million people in China had contracted COVID in the first three weeks of December.

On December 28, Italy has become the first European country to require testing of passengers disembarking from China, a request that was met with widespread disapproval, including from the ECDC, which released a statement saying the agency considered “the screenings and travel measures on travelers from China unjustified”.

When Italy’s initial tests of passengers from China showed this almost half of them tested positive for the virus, the criticism subsided quickly, and France (who found that about a third of the passengers arrived from China have tested positive), Spain, the United Kingdom and​​​​ other European countries have followed their own testing requirements.

On January 4, the European Union recommended that all 27 member states adopt a temporary requirement that passengers on flights originating in China show proof of a recent negative PCR test before flying and be required to wear a high-quality mask on board. It is also recommended random tests of arriving passengers and airport waste water survey, with positive results to be sequenced.

So far, 10 of the 27 EU countries have adopted the recommended measures, although they remain controversial, with some experts urging that all plane passengers be required to undergo preflight tests and that a requirement of Masking is completely restored. With the measures only applying to flights from China, and with only some countries putting them in place, “it’s like putting a gate in a wide open field,” Macip said.

A passenger wearing a mask hands his passport to an airport worker.

A passenger hands his passport to a worker at Malpensa airport in Milan on December 29, after Italy ordered COVID antigen swabs and virus sequencing for all travelers coming from China. (Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters)

“It’s not a panacea,” said López Acuña of the policies that stand out in China, “but it will help deter cases entering Europe.”

With incomplete COVID data coming from China, “It is not unreasonable for countries to take precautionary measures to protect their populations, while we await more detailed information,” Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said said in a press conference on Tuesday, adding that the WHO urges the measures “to be rooted in science, to be proportionate and non-discriminatory”.

While the initial concern was that passengers from China would introduce new variants to Europe, none have been detected.

In a January 3 adviceThe ECDC has sought to allay fears about new variants of COVID from China.

“The variants circulating in China are already circulating in the EU, and therefore do not challenge the immune response of EU/EEA citizens,” the agency wrote. “Furthermore, EU/EEA citizens have relatively high levels of immunization and vaccination, [thus] An increase in cases in China is not expected to impact the epidemiological situation of COVID-19 in the EU/EEA”.

López Acuña disputes this claim, indicating that immunity in Europe is weakening, since only 13% of the European population has received the the second, more powerful bivalent booster which also addresses Omicron variants.

“It is possible that new increases in cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 will be observed in the coming weeks,” an ECDC spokesperson said in an email to Yahoo News, “however, it will be very difficult to attribute this to travelers as The general increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have already been detected “in November and December.

People outside a COVID vaccination center in Turin, Italy.

People arrive to receive COVID-19 vaccination boosters at a vaccination center in Turin, Italy, on December 30. (Jessica Pasqualon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

López Acuña is also extremely concerned that XBB.1.5, the variant called Kraken, which appears to be more severe than previous strains, is showing resistance to monoclonal antibody treatments and “causing a considerable increase in hospitalization and mortality in the Costa Est. of the United States.”

ECDC’s notice on XBB.1.5 earlier this week struck it as “wishy-washy”. In his Council of January 9 bulletin, the agency wrote that the new variant has already been found in 16 European countries, but that “the rapid growth in the United States does not necessarily mean that the variant will become dominant in the EU/EEA, since major differences in the circulation of variants between North America and Europe have been observed several times during the pandemic. The warning conceded, however, that “there is a risk” that the variant could become problematic for Europe, “but not in the coming month”.

López Acuña understood that message. “It’s serious, but not very serious, and we don’t have to worry about it,” he said sarcastically. He added that it is not clear exactly how much Kraken is already circulating in the EU, since most countries do not sequence positive test results. Overall, I believe that the ECDC “acted very naively” at a critical juncture.

“We are facing two real emergencies of a different nature – one of a variant that is much more serious, Kraken,” López Acuña added. “And in the second case, you have a pandemic dynamic that creates a large number of infections and hospitalizations and deaths. So it is not only Kraken that is the threat or China that is the threat. It is the sum of the two that threatens the delicate balance that we were achieving in terms of the pandemic. And that is why the fight must continue.”

A tram in Erfurt, Germany

A tram in Erfurt, Germany, requires customers to have “mouth-nose protection”. (Martin Schutt/press alliance via Getty Images)

As a result, the cases of COVID in Europe are likely to shoot higher, according to López Acuña and Macip. “With more viruses circulating, we will have more cases in Europe,” Macip said, adding that he is worried about the effects on already overwhelmed hospitals. “Whether it’s a tsunami or a small wave,” he said, depends on a variety of factors, including whether Europeans take precautions, including wearing masks – a recommendation the WHO reinforced on Friday.

On Friday afternoon, as in cue, the ECDC released an updated threat assessment. “According to the current ECDC assessment,” he said, “there is a moderate probability that XBB.1.5 will become dominant in the EU/EEA and cause a substantial increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the next one to two months “. In an accompanying press release the agency wrote, “In view of this, the ECDC recommends carrying out appropriate tests and sequences, increasing the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccination, and strengthening infection prevention and control measures. Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as staying at home when sick, teleworking, good ventilation of indoor spaces and the appropriate use of face masks should also be considered.

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