The World Health Organization said Wednesday that the implementation of vaccines in Europe is “unacceptably late,” providing a scathing assessment of the region’s Covid response amid a “worrying” rise in infections.
Since drug makers have consistently under-delivered on planned shipments, many European countries have failed to implement successful vaccination programs. WHO said in a statement that only 10% of the population in the country has been vaccinated with one dose of a two-dose vaccine.
“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic. Not only do they work, they are also highly effective in preventing infection. However, the roll-out of these vaccines is unacceptably slow,” WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge said in the statement.
“And as long as coverage remains low, we need to apply the same public health and social measures as we have in the past, to compensate for delayed schedules. Let me be clear: we must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now.”
Dorit Nitzan, WHO Europe’s regional emergency director, cautioned that while new cases in Europe had fallen to under 1 million only five weeks ago, increased mobility, religious holiday gatherings, and the presence of the B.1.1.7 form — first detected in the UK — pose a greater public danger. There were 1.6 million new cases and almost 24,000 deaths in the area last week.
“This variant is more transmissible and can increase the risk of hospitalization, it has a greater public health impact and additional actions are required to control it,” Nitzan said.
WHO is encouraging early action to introduce public health and social initiatives as the vaccine rollout expands throughout Europe.
According to the statement, 27 European countries are on partial or absolute lockdown, with 21 enforcing nighttime curfews. In the last two weeks, 23 countries have tightened sanctions while 13 have relaxed them, with nine more on the way.
Vaccination rates vary greatly across the country. In the United Kingdom, for example, more than 30 million vaccines have been given, with more than 58 percent of the adult population receiving at least one dose of the two-dose regimen. In comparison, the European Union has given out about 70 million doses, or just over a quarter of the adult population of the 27-nation bloc. Some nations, such as Serbia, seem to have done better.
The EU’s program has a flaw in that it heavily relies on vaccines manufactured by AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish pharmaceutical company. The EU requested at least 300 million doses from AstraZeneca, but the firm has failed to meet agreed-upon quarterly expectations by tens of millions of doses. The shortfall was attributed to lower-than-expected yields from AstraZeneca’s EU plants. It appears to be on track to deliver 100 million doses to the United Kingdom, which placed an order with the company. AstraZeneca has stated that the UK market will be prioritized, with doses manufactured in the UK. Many pharmaceutical firms have also refused to fulfill their commitments to the EU.
On Thursday, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that the current wave of the virus in France could reach its peak in the next 10 days. He made his remarks as the country faced tighter national restrictions as a result of a surge that has overburdened hospitals. On Wednesday night, French President Emmanuel Macron declared a partial lockdown across the country, after ICU admissions surpassed 5,000 and doctors demanded more restrictive measures from the government. If all goes well, we “could hit the epidemic peak in about 7 to 10 days,” Veran told France Inter.
“Then it takes another two weeks to reach the ICU peak, which could happen around the end of April.” He added: “I believe the measures announced last night by the President of the Republic will have a strong impact on the dynamic of the epidemic,” he said.
Macron had defied a national curfew like those seen in Germany and the United Kingdom. Instead, the government placed restrictions in specific areas of the region. Macron estimated that approximately 44% of all Covid patients in France’s intensive care units are under the age of 65. He maintained that France had made the “right decisions” so far, but acknowledged that the vaccine has “accelerated” and “things have changed” in recent weeks.