Rome, Italy | Xinhua | European countries were speeding up and adjusting their vaccine programs in hopes of stemming the spread of the new Delta variant of the coronavirus and preventing a new wave of infections.
Most European countries started easing coronavirus health restrictions in April and May, as infection rates and other key pandemic indicators improved. Now, in the midst of the continent’s main summer holiday period, plans to jump-start the tourism economy may be cast in new doubt due to the Delta variant.
The highly transmissible variant, which was first found in India, is unnerving European health leaders who have been through months of lockdowns, travel restrictions, and other health measures.
In Britain, the number of cases of the Delta variant has quadrupled in a month, while in Portugal, Russia, Spain and Cyprus, the number of coronavirus infections has increased dramatically.
According to the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC), a multilateral entity that monitors heath data in 30 countries, the new variant is expected to account for 90 percent of the coronavirus cases in the 27-nation European Union by August. The center said the key to confronting the problem was the use of vaccines.
In a press statement, the ECDC noted that while the Delta variant is far more transmissible than the original strain, it is not clear whether it is more dangerous. The ECDC also said that vaccines developed to guard against previous variants of the virus are also proving effective at preventing serious illness as a result of the newest variant.
“It is imperative that countries should progress with their vaccine rollouts as quickly as possible,” the ECDC said in a statement emailed to reporters.
During a visit to Lithuania on Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the commission was “concerned” with the new variant.
“We see that the new Delta variant is much more transmissible than the other ones, and we see that infection rates are rising and we know that they will be rising,” von der Leyen said.
For its part, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is considering changing the vaccine mix it is giving to its residents, combining a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine with the second dose of one of the mRNA vaccines, either the one from Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna. Some early research has shown that such a combination is more effective in warding off infections from the Delta variant.
Portugal, which is reporting its highest coronavirus infection rates since early February, is reportedly mulling new partial lockdowns. In Russia, the infection rate doubled in June, and in Spain, the increase in the infection rates is taking place largely among those under the age of 30, the least-vaccinated age group in that country. In Cyprus, President Nicos Anastasiades implored his countrymen to get vaccinated, calling it “a matter of patriotism.”
In Italy, which was the first European country hit hard by the pandemic last year, infection rates remained low. But the country made the controversial decision to block British football fans traveling to Rome for their country’s Saturday match against Ukraine in hopes of slowing the spread of the variant, which as of late June accounted for nearly a quarter of the cases in the country, up from 1 percent a month earlier.
Pierpaolo Sileri, Italian under-secretary for health, said the spread of the new variant should not be a cause for alarm: “We shouldn’t worry because the Delta variant cannot elude the effects of vaccines.”
Giorgio Palu, president of the Italian Medicines Agency, known as AIFA, told Xinhua the only thing countries can do to contain the new variant and future variants was to focus attention on distributing vaccines.
“We have already seen that lockdowns and health measures only slow the spread of a virus,” Palu said. “The only way to be safe is to be vaccinated and countries should be concentrating their efforts on that aspect.”