While the United Kingdom is way ahead on its rollout - having vaccinated almost as many people as the rest of Europe combined - its hospitals are being pushed to their limits by a surge in cases from the new, faster-spreading variant of the disease. On the continent, meanwhile, health officials are worried that the mutation will spread out of the United Kingdom more rapidly than vaccinations can keep up.
"It's a variant that completely changes the game for this start of the year," Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist who sits on the scientific council that advises the French government on the coronavirus, said Monday on RMC radio. "It's almost a new epidemic within the epidemic."
Although the new variant has been spotted in about 31 countries outside the United Kingdom, including Germany and France, the extent to which it is spreading on the continent remains murky. But the rapidity with which it sent cases and deaths soaring in the United Kingdom, and the strained state-run National Health Service is prompting calls for more stringent movement restrictions.
"It's our biggest concern that numbers don't explode, that hospitals don't collapse and that we get infection rates under control," Annalena Baerbock, a member of the German parliament and co-chairwoman of the opposition Green Party, said Monday, advocating stricter rules. On Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany faces hard lockdown measures into late March if authorities fail to contain the fast-spreading variant.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is banking on accelerated vaccinations, even as he warned of tightened lockdown rules. More than 2.2 million people in the United Kingdom have received the first shot of a vaccine. That's over four doses per 100 people, which is more than five times the rate in Germany and nearly 20 times that in France.
The United Kingdom has pledged to vaccinate 15 million people by mid-February to shield its most vulnerable residents from the new variant. Even that's a strategy not guaranteed to succeed, with the NHS already buckling under the stress, daily infections at record levels in recent days and the death toll the highest in Europe.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the region is far behind on vaccinations, grappling with logistical or supply issues and in some cases vaccine skepticism. That's raising additional questions about their preparedness for the new variant - should it hit the continent on a large scale. Intensifying that worry is a pickup in the number of hospitalizations.
European countries that went into lockdown in November saw hospitalization rates - and more importantly the number of people in the intensive care unit - decline. That applied to the United Kingdom, too, where the number of people in beds with ventilator capacity started dropping in late November.
The trend reversed itself in the United Kingdom in mid-December, despite stricter rules, as the new strain began to spread. The government's scientific advisers believe new infections are running above 100,000 a day - comparable to or exceeding the first wave in the spring. ICU beds are rapidly filling up, and Johnson said on Monday that supplemental-oxygen supplies are running short in some areas.
Hospitalizations are now beginning to climb elsewhere as well. In Ireland, with its close ties to the United Kingdom, the number of covid-19 patients in the hospital has tripled since Jan. 1 to more than 1,500 cases, with about 87% of intensive-care beds occupied.
In Spain, the number of patients in ICUs has climbed 24% since Dec. 31. Italian ICUs are also seeing more patients after a drop at the end of last month. In Germany, intensive-care beds had never opened - and while hospital admissions are down 8% from a peak at the beginning of the year, officials worry that the new variant could quickly refill wards.
"The worst is to be feared," said the Green Party's Baerbock.
Published : January 13, 2021
By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Naomi Kresge, Rudy Ruitenberg