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Third Covid wave hits Europe: Lockdowns imposed and vaccines remain a problem

Members of the medical staff check information of a patient at the pneumology unit of the AP-HP Cochin hospital, in Paris on March 18, 2021 as the number of people hospitalized with the Covid-19 is on the rise in the French capital.

CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT | AFP | Getty Images

More than a year after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, Europe is continuing to struggle with the virus amid a third wave of infections and ramping up of lockdown measures.

At the same time, the bloc’s vaccination rollout remains sluggish, hit by manufacturing issues and supply snags, to the extent that European Union leaders are meeting this week to discuss — once again — the introduction of possible vaccine export bans.

It comes as a handful of countries re-introduce lockdowns to curb a third wave of infections, with France, Poland and Ukraine all implementing stricter measures at the weekend that are set to last several weeks at least.

A month-long partial lockdown was reintroduced in Paris Saturday, as well as in 15 other regions in France, in an effort to get on top of rising case numbers, largely attributed to new, more infectious Covid variants.

The latest partial lockdown is less stringent than previous ones, however, prompting some to question the point of such a move, while others have said that the new measures are confusing. A curfew is still in place and inter-regional travel remains effectively banned. Around 21 million people in France are affected by the new rules.

The country reported over 30,000 new daily cases on Sunday, bringing the country’s total number of infections to over 4.2 million. Over 92,000 people have died due to the virus in France to date.

Meanwhile, Europe’s largest economy Germany could be set to extend a national lockdown into April as the country also battles a third wave of Covid-19 cases. Several states have reportedly called for an extension to current restrictions as the Covid incidence rate passed 100 cases per 100,000 people, a level the government previously said would prompt it to implement an “emergency brake” — a stalling of the lifting of lockdown measures — to prevent further spread.

The move would be a blow for Germany that had started to ease lockdown measures, allowing schools to reopen in February and some non-essential shops to admit customers again earlier this month.

Vaccine struggles

As much of the EU experiences rising coronavirus cases, the bloc’s vaccine rollout remains sluggish and contentious.

EU leaders are set to meet virtually on Thursday to discuss whether to block vaccine exports while supplies within the region remain in short supply, and its vaccination program lags behind those in other developed nations.

The EU was criticized for bulk-ordering coronavirus vaccines later than the U.K. and U.S., and has subsequently had to deal with supply issues, despite two of the vaccines it has authorized for use — the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca-University of Oxford shots — being manufactured in the EU.

There are reports that the EU could block exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine being made at a Dutch plant — a move that could also jeopardize the U.K.’s so-far successful vaccine rollout. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to reach out to his European counterparts to try to resolve the impasse over vaccines.

The rollout of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine has faced several hurdles in recent weeks, with a handful of European countries suspending use of the shot due to concerns over a possible link to reports of blood clots.

The World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency conducted safety reviews into the vaccine with the latter ruling last Thursday that it is safe and effective and the benefits outweigh any risks.

The conclusion prompted a reversal of the vaccine’s suspension from most (but not all) of the European countries that had stopped its use, but the move could damage public confidence in the vaccine, which was already shaky due to misplaced questions over the efficacy of the shot in the over-65s.

Real-world data has since proven the vaccine is highly effective at reducing severe Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths in adults. The vaccine got another boost on Monday when the results of a large U.S. trial were published showing that the AstraZeneca vaccine is 79% effective in preventing symptomatic illness and 100% effective against severe disease and hospitalization.

However, a YouGov poll published on Monday showed that the decision of some European nations to suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine has “hugely damaged public perceptions of the vaccine’s safety in Europe.”

The poll, conducted in seven European countries (the U.K., Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark and Sweden) between March 15-18 found that people were more likely to see the vaccine as unsafe than safe in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. It should be noted that the survey was conducted during the week when the vaccine’s safety credentials were being questioned and mostly before the EMA published its safety ruling on the shot.

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