It was supposed to be a post-Covid-19 summer in Europe. Masks are gone in most places, and the holiday season is in full swing as workers rush to the beaches and cities they may have missed in the two years marked by the pandemic. But instead, the truth before people is that the virus never went away.
A super-transmissible subvariant of the Omicron strain, known as BA.5, is fueling a new surge in infections, with cases rising across the UK and the continent. Intensive care admissions are on the rise, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which has warned that another wave of the disease is beginning.
The end of restrictions on international travel and the return of mass participation events such as concerts are also helping to contain the spread of the virus. And cases may already be far higher than the figures currently show, given that most countries have dramatically scaled back testing.
But governments have long thrown out the initial Covid playbook, and are set to tighten mask rules, limit gatherings or reinstate vaccine and testing requirements for travel. Most are pushing for another round of boosters for those at risk, relying on Europe’s relatively high vaccination rates to keep mortality rates down.
The timing of the rise suggests that Covid is not yet as seasonal as the winter flu. Instead, the waves of persistent more infectious versions show that it is still unclear what it will mean to live with the virus in the long run, said Martin Mackie, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“It’s not like seasonal influenza,” he said, adding that there is no guarantee that current vaccines will be effective against future forms. “We’re seeing waves every few months. And as a result, we need to reassess where we go with this.”
#COVID-19 The emergency committee met and concluded that the outbreak remains a public health emergency of international concern. The new waves of the virus show that the pandemic is not over. We must step back with safe and effective tools to prevent infections, hospitalizations and deaths https://t.co/9KeqSriZWH
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) 13 July 2022
To combat the surge of summer, the ECDC issued new guidance this week recommending that adults over the age of 60 and those of any age who are medically vulnerable no longer wait for a shot instead. Consider a second booster, which has been optimized to be more effective than the current variant. ,
Given that most people in that age group had their original boosters three to six months earlier, protection against serious illness may be reduced, according to ECDC director Andrea Ammon.
“The risk to people is now,” said Pierre Delsaux, head of HERA, the EU’s emergency health authority. “It is better to vaccinate now because current vaccines are still effective.”
In the UK, the government announced on Friday it would broaden its COVID booster shot campaign, starting in the fall, to include everyone aged 50 and over. According to the latest survey, infection rates are rising there, and in England the highest since April.
Hospitalizations are also increasing, in some cases more quickly than the recorded spike in infections. The disparity between the measures is probably due to less precise monitoring, said Lewis Blair, who leads the Vaccines and Variants team at Airfinity Ltd., a London-based data firm.
He said the heat wave is a reminder that the virus is not yet seasonal. “We’re actually seeing cases and ripples being driven by new variants rather than mixing them indoors,” Blair said.
And the boom isn’t limited to Europe. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that the BA.5 variant accounts for about 65% of cases. Infections there could reach 600,000 cases per day, Bloomberg Intelligence estimated in a report, based on patterns seen in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, and elsewhere.
New York’s positivity rate is the highest since January, and Los Angeles County raised its COVID alert level this week. It also warned that if the case numbers persist, there would be a need for masks indoors. In Japan, Tokyo raised its infection alert to the highest level.
“From a psychological perspective, many people may feel like they are in a limbo around COVID,” said Rachel McClough, a behavioral psychologist at the University of Reading. The absence of restrictions sends a message that things are back to normal, but “on the other hand rates are rising, people are sick and at risk, and everything is still not quite as it was,” she said.