WHO Europe chief voices 'grave concern' about COVID rebound

A 53-country region in Europe and Central Asia faces the “real threat” of a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic in the coming weeks or already is experiencing a new wave of infections, the head of the World Health Organization’s regional office said Thursday.

Dr. Hans Kluge said case counts are beginning to near record levels again and the pace of transmission in the region, which stretches as far east as the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, is of “grave concern.”

“We are at another critical point of pandemic resurgence,” Kluge told reporters from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. “Europe is back at the epicenter of the pandemic, where we were one year ago.”

FILE-A woman walks past an abandoned coronavirus test center in Frankfurt, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Numbers of coronavirus infections are rising again in Germany. Germany's disease control agency has reported the highest number of new infections with the coronavirus since the outbreak of the pandemic. (AP PhotoMichael Probst, File)

He said the difference now is that health authorities know more about the virus and have better tools to combat it. Relaxed prevention measures and low vaccination rates in some areas explain the latest surge, he said.

Kluge said hospitalization rates due to COVID-19 in the 53-country region more than doubled over the last week. If that trajectory continues, the region could see another 500,000 pandemic deaths by February, he said.

WHO Europe says the region tallied nearly 1.8 million new weekly cases, an increase of about 6% from the previous week, and 24,000 COVID-19 weekly deaths, – a 12% gain.

Heather Papowitz a WHO senior specialist, deployed to assist Romania in its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic speaks during a joint press conference with Alexandru Rafila, Romania's representative to the WHO and Dorit Nitzan, regional emergency Director, left, of the WHO for a press conference in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The World Health Organization says the number of coronavirus cases has risen in Europe for the fifth consecutive week, making it the only world region where COVID-19 is still increasing. (AP PhotoVadim Ghirda)

Kluge said the countries in the region were at “varying stages of vaccination rollout” and that regionwide an average of 47% of people were fully vaccinated. Only eight countries had 70% of their populations fully vaccinated.

“We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of COVID-19, to preventing them from happening in the first place,” Kluge said.

WHO's headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday reported that cases had risen in Europe for the fifth consecutive week, making it the only world region where COVID-19 is still increasing. The infection rate was by far the highest in Europe, which reported some 192 new cases per 100,000 people.

Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have seen daily case numbers shoot up in recent weeks.