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Europe in ‘collective denial’ over the state of the COVID pandemic, says a former WHO official

A current view of Milan. (Mairo Cinquetti/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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BARCELONA, Spain — A report released Friday morning by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) found that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the continent is improving compared to spikes in new cases and hospital admissions recorded in December has.

But experts speaking to Yahoo News painted a much less encouraging picture, saying that ECDC’s new Country Overview Report is based on incomplete, inaccurate data from 30 European countries.

“Due to changes in testing strategies and the end-of-year holiday, these numbers are a massive underestimate of the true picture,” a spokesman for the World Health Organization told Yahoo News in an email. WHO works with ECDC in preparing its assessments.

Former WHO crisis manager Daniel López Acuña, now based in Spain, agrees that the new ECDC report assessing the state of the pandemic does not provide an accurate assessment.

“The report attempts to provide an optimistic perspective on the state of COVID-19 transmission in Europe, but contradicts itself when it concedes that reporting delays, insufficient diagnostic testing and [holiday behavior] could hide the true extent of the problem,” López Acuña told Yahoo News. However, he believes some of the under-reporting is due to “a collective denial” that has set in across Europe. “All governments want to close this book and move on to the next edition.”

Research Associate at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England

A researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England prepares a sample for genome sequencing, a practice no longer practiced by some European countries. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Over the past year, many European health ministries simply stopped reporting critical COVID information. Spain, for example, now only pursues cases from citizens over 60 years of age. Germany, Portugal and Poland are among eight countries not reporting hospital admissions; Sweden, which has recorded the highest number of COVID patients requiring medical care since early 2021, declared in April that COVID was no longer a health emergency and stopped reporting numbers.

López Acuña points out that Europe’s true COVID landscape is blurry and underestimated due to key data that is consistently missing from recent ECDC reports. Other health experts agree.

“We only get half the picture,” Salvador Macip, director of health sciences at the Open University of Catalonia, told Yahoo News.

With most health departments halting routine testing of citizens and many countries halting genome sequencing, “we’re flying blind,” said Martin McKee, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. These reporting problems came despite assurances from Germany’s top virologist, who announced in December that the pandemic was finally over. Days later, reports spread of a new and more contagious variant, XBB 1.5, gaining ground in the US, and China experienced a surge of new cases after dropping its strict zero-COVID policy.

Workers in protective masks and suits help a Chinese traveler

Airport workers wearing protective masks and suits help a Chinese traveler at an airport near Rome. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

Protests in December prompted the Chinese government to reopen the country to allow citizens to travel freely – and cases promptly rose. Earlier this month, some scientists estimated that one million new cases of COVID are emerging in China every day; On December 25, 2022, the Financial Times reported that around 250 million people in China contracted COVID in the first three weeks of December.

On December 28, Italy became the first European country to request testing of passengers landing from China, a demand met with widespread opposition, including from ECDC, which issued a statement saying the agency was considering “screenings and travel measures for Travelers from China as unjustified.”

When Italy’s first tests of passengers from China showed almost half of them tested positive for the virus, criticism quickly died down, as did France (which found about a third of passengers arriving from China tested positive), Spain , Great Britain and other European countries followed with their own test requirements.

On January 4, the European Union recommended that all 27 member states introduce a temporary requirement for passengers on flights originating in China to demonstrate a recent negative PCR test before the flight and wear a high-quality mask on board. It also recommended random testing of incoming passengers and monitoring of airport sewage, with positive results from both being sequenced.

So far, 10 of the 27 EU countries have adopted the recommended measures, although they remain controversial, with some experts urging passengers take everyone Flights must complete pre-flight tests and the obligation to wear masks must be reintroduced across the board. Since the measures only apply to flights from China and only a few countries are enacting them, “it’s like putting up a gate in a wide-open field,” Macip said.

A passenger gives his passport to a worker after Italy left March 29 (Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters)

A passenger gives his passport to a worker after Italy left March 29 (Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters)

“It’s not a panacea,” López Acuña said of the policy, which highlights China, “but it will help deter incoming cases to Europe.”

While the initial concern was that passengers from China would introduce new variants to Europe, none have been spotted so far.

In a January 3 recommendation, ECDC sought to allay fears of new COVID variants originating in China.

“The variants circulating in China are already circulating in the EU and as such pose no challenge to the immune response of EU/EEA citizens,” the agency wrote. “Furthermore, EU/EEA citizens have relatively high rates of immunization and vaccination, [thus] An increase in cases in China is not expected to have any impact on the EU/EEA epidemiological situation of COVID-19.”

López Acuña challenges this claim, noting that immunity is weakening in Europe as only 13% of the European population received the second, stronger, bivalent booster shot, which also targets Omicron variants.

“It is possible that we will see a new surge in cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the coming weeks,” an ECDC spokesman told Yahoo News in an email, “however, it will be very difficult to do so.” Attributed to travelers Overall, an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions has already been observed [in November and December].”

People arrive at a vaccination center set up at San Giovanni Bosco Hospital in Turin, Italy, on December 30, 2022, to receive COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.  (Jessica Pasqualon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

People arrive at a vaccination center set up at San Giovanni Bosco Hospital in Turin, Italy, on December 30, 2022, to receive COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. (Jessica Pasqualon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

López Acuña is also extremely concerned about XBB 1.5, the so-called Kraken variant, which appears to be more severe than previous strains, shows resistance to monoclonal antibody treatments and is “causing a significant increase in hospitalizations and mortality on the East Coast of the US.”

The ECDC’s recommendation on XBB 1.5 earlier this week struck him as ‘slip-smacking’. In its January 9 advisory bulletin, ECDC wrote that the new variant has already been found in 16 European countries, but that “rapid growth in the US does not necessarily mean that the variant will become dominant in the EU/EEA, as major Differences in variant circulation between North America and Europe have been observed multiple times during the pandemic.” However, the notice acknowledged that “there is a risk” that the variant could become problematic for Europe “but not within the coming month”.

López Acuña balks at this message. “It’s serious, but not very serious, and we don’t have to worry,” he said smugly. He added that it’s unclear how much octopus is already circulating in the EU, as most countries don’t sequence positive test results. Overall, he believes ECDC has been “acting very naively” at a critical juncture.

“We are facing two real emergencies of different nature – one of a much more serious variety, Kraken,” added López Acuña. “And in the second case, you have a pandemic dynamic that creates a large number of contagions, hospitalizations and deaths. So it’s not just Kraken that’s the threat or China that’s the threat. It is the combination of both that threatens the delicate balance that we have reached in relation to the pandemic. And that is why the fight must go on.”

A tram in Erfurt, Germany

A tram in Erfurt requires customers to wear “mouth and nose protection”. (Martin Schuett/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

As a result, COVID cases in Europe are likely to continue to rise, according to López Acuña and Macip. “With more viruses circulating, we will have more cases in Europe,” Macip said, adding that he was worried about the impact on already overburdened hospitals. “Whether it’s a tsunami or a small wave,” he said, depends on a variety of factors, including whether Europeans are taking precautionary measures, including masking — a recommendation the WHO reiterated on Friday.

On Friday afternoon, as if on cue, the ECDC released an updated threat assessment. “According to the current ECDC assessment,” it said, “there is a medium probability that XBB.1.5 will become dominant in the EU/EEA and lead to a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases within the next one to two months leads.” In an accompanying press release, ECDC wrote: “In light of the above, ECDC recommends conducting appropriate testing and sequencing, increasing the uptake of COVID-19 vaccination and strengthening infection prevention and control measures. Non-pharmaceutical measures such as staying home when ill, teleworking, good indoor ventilation and appropriate use of face masks should also be considered.”

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