by Xinhua writer Chen Jing
HELSINKI, March 18 (Xinhua) -- Europe's medical regulator said on Thursday that European Union (EU) countries should continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine because its benefits outweigh risks.
The news somehow relieved worries that controversies over AstraZeneca would further delay the vaccination process in the EU, which is already slow due to insufficient supplies.
But more needs to be done when Europe right now is facing a new wave of infections.
According to World Health Organization (WHO) Europe, the region has seen a rise in COVID-19 transmission rates with its death toll towards 1 million since the pandemic started.
In parts of the region such as central Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic states, "case incidence, hospitalizations and deaths are now among the highest in the world," said Hans Kluge, regional director for WHO Europe.
According to the WHO's latest weekly epidemiological update, the highest numbers of new cases in Europe were reported from France, Italy and Poland.
In France, 34,998 new COVID-19 infections were reported on Thursday, the second biggest daily tally in the country after Wednesday's 38,501 since mid-November 2020.
France has entered "a third wave characterized by numerous virus variants," French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Tuesday.
Austria reported 3,357 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the country's highest daily count this year. The third wave of the pandemic has already begun, Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober warned earlier this week.
While people of all ages are affected by the pandemic, children cases were especially worrisome.
Data provided by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare shows that in Finland there has been a 250 percent increase in the number of infections among children under the age of 10 over the past four weeks compared to a period of four weeks in November last year.
The worsening pandemic situation in Europe was partly due to the fast-spreading of the more contagious virus variants.
According to the WHO, more countries in the world reported cases of coronavirus variants, markedly of the contagious variants that first reported in Britain and South Africa.
The B117 variant that was first detected in Britain has been found in 118 countries while the one starting in South Africa was spotted in 64 countries.
In Latvia, experts said that the speed at which the third wave will hit the Baltic country largely depends on the spread of the more transmissible virus strain B117, which is now found in around 25 percent of all sequenced samples.
Another mutated coronavirus strain, first found in the African country Uganda, has also been detected in Latvia's southwestern city Liepaja.
The variants are causing serious problems too in east Austria.
In Burgenland, more than 94 percent of new infections were traced back to one of the probably more dangerous and infectious variants, while Carinthia and Vienna also have percentages of over 80 percent, according to health authorities.
Young people could be more vulnerable to new coronavirus mutations, according to the Helsinki University Hospital.
Speaking of the rapidly rising incidence among children and adolescents under 15 years old in Germany, Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, also mentioned the more contagious variant.
Wieler warned that B117 was found in 55 percent of the positive samples tested in Germany. The share of the variant more than doubled within the last four weeks in Germany.
"We still have many challenges ahead to face. Perhaps the biggest is fatigue over social distancing measures," said Gkikas Magiorkinis, a professor of epidemiology who participates in the committee of experts advising the Greek Health Ministry on the COVID-19 response.
A recent survey carried out by a Greek news media showed that 45.2 percent of Greeks said they feel fatigued and 30.5 percent anger.
The Greek government is planning to relax some restrictions of citizens' activities in the coming sunnier days to tackle lockdown fatigue, even as pressure on the country's healthcare system from the rising number of hospitalizations keeps growing.
According to WHO official Kluge, in the EU, while 27 countries are currently in a partial or full nationwide lockdown, 21 are gradually easing restrictive measures.
"Some are doing so based on the assumption that increasing vaccination uptake in countries would immediately lead to an improved epidemiological situation," Kluge said, however warning that "such assumptions are too early to make."
Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist, said in a recent interview, "They (Europeans) thought they were home free and they weren't and now they are seeing an increase."
"If you wait just a bit longer to give the vaccine program a chance to increase the protection in the community, then it makes pulling back much less risky," he said.
Kluge also called upon European countries to "remain steadfast in our application of the full range of tools" to fight the coronavirus.
"Let there be no doubt about it, vaccination by itself, particularly given the varied uptake in countries, does not replace public health and social measures," he said. Enditem
(Lin Jing in Copenhagen, Li Deping in Riga, Zhao Feifei in Vienna, Yu Shuaishuai in Athens, Sun Yifei in Sofia, Chen Wenxian in Valletta, Chen Xu in Warsaw, Liu Fang in Paris, Zhang Yirong in Berlin and Nie Xiaoyang in Geneva contributed to the story.)