(CN) — Deaths are surging once again across Europe as the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms health systems and the region records more than 4,000 new deaths each day, the highest in the world.
Since the start of its coronavirus outbreak in February, the death toll in Europe has surpassed 312,000 and more than 13 million Europeans have been found infected with the virus. Now, the virus is raging again after Europe lifted national lockdowns and enjoyed a modestly carefree summer that helped reboot the economy. Europe accounts for about half of the world’s new deaths and it’s gone back into crippling lockdowns.
Globally, more than 1.3 million people have died after contracting Covid-19, the disease linked to the novel coronavirus. The Americas has reported the most deaths with more than 656,000 fatalities caused by Covid-19 and the region continues to report high death counts and hundreds of thousands of new infections each day.
In Europe, deaths continue to mount by the hundreds in those nations that have suffered the most since the start of the pandemic: the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain and Russia. Earlier this week, the official death toll passed 50,000 in the U.K., the highest in Europe. However, smaller nations – the Czech Republic, Belgium, Slovenia and Switzerland– are recording the highest mortality rates per capita. In Czechia, medical students have been called in to help at hospitals and the army is tackling the pandemic in Slovenia and Switzerland.
In recent days, Italy has once again become Europe’s deadly hot spot. Italy was the first nation in Europe to see a major outbreak in February and it ordered the world’s first national lockdown in March to contain the virus.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Italy reported more than 600 new deaths on both days and on Friday it reported 550 new deaths, bringing its total death count to about 44,000.
But unlike in the spring, Italy is discovering infections up and down the peninsula, sparking alarm in its poorer southern regions.
In the spring, southern Italy was largely spared the horrors witnessed in northern Italy when hospitals filled up with patients gasping for breath and the sound of ambulance sirens was heard throughout the day in the hardest-hit places. Now, fears about southern Italy’s hospitals being less equipped to handle the pandemic are coming true.
“There are images coming from Campania that are horrible,” said Luigi di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, on social media. He is from a town near Naples, the capital of the Campania region. He said the region’s health system was collapsing.
He referred to videos shared on social media. In one video, he said, a person was seen lying dead inside a hospital bathroom; in others, patients were seen overwhelming hospital wards.
Last weekend, nurses at one hospital provided oxygen treatment to people sitting in their cars in a parking lot. There were reports of people in Campania dying in ambulances that had nowhere to go. News media reported one 78-year-old woman in Naples waited for 26 hours in an ambulance before she was admitted to a hospital.
Similar reports came in from other parts of Italy, where ambulances reportedly were queuing up outside hospitals due to a lack of available beds.
“We are very close to not keeping up. I cannot say when we will reach the limit, but that day is not far off,” Dr, Luca Cabrini, the head of an intensive care ward at Varese’s Circolo Hospital, told the Associated Press.
Elsewhere in Europe there are signs that tough restrictions – including banning large gatherings, shutting bars and restaurants, closing schools and national lockdowns – are helping. In recent days, health officials in Germany and Belgium have said they are seeing the number of new cases begin to level off.
“The curve is flattening,” said Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s infectious disease agency, on Thursday. However, on the same day Germany reported a record number of new infections – more than 23,462.
Germany has imposed a partial lockdown and it remains to be seen whether that strategy will work. Germany is an outlier in Europe with about 12,400 deaths, a small number compared to other major countries.
A month ago, Ireland became one of the first European nations to impose a second national lockdown and that move seems to be paying off. This week, it started easing restrictions on travelers from abroad as it sees a fall in new infections. It has one of the lowest rates of infection in Europe and it is set to end its lockdown on Dec. 1.
Like the rest of the world, Europe is pinning its hopes on a vaccine and those expectations were heightened this week after the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a vaccine it is developing with BioNTech, a German company, is showing good promise.
The companies said the vaccine was 90% effective, which means that 90% of those injected with the vaccine in clinical trials were not infected compared to a group of people that did not receive the vaccine but instead were given a placebo, said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist at the World Health Organization, during a discussion on social media this week about vaccines.
The European Union quickly announced it signed a contract to buy 300 million doses of the vaccine if it is proven effective and safe. The EU also has contracts to buy vaccines manufactured by other companies. The EU has not disclosed how much it is paying for the vaccines, citing contractual obligations.
“We are now consolidating an extremely solid vaccine candidate portfolio, most of them in advanced trials phase,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “A safe and effective vaccine is our best chance to beat coronavirus and return to our normal lives.”
She called the BioNTech-Pfizer product “the most promising vaccine so far” and said the EU plans to “deploy it quickly, everywhere in Europe.”
The WHO hopes to distribute about 2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of next year. The health agency hasn’t approved a vaccine yet but its experts say vaccines may get a greenlight in the coming months.
“In 2021, vaccines will be in limited supply, we know that,” said Katherine O’Brien, the head of the WHO’s immunization, vaccines and biologicals program.
O’Brien said distributing vaccines will be an even bigger task than concocting them. “Developing the vaccines and getting them licensed is like building base camp at the bottom of Everest and actually getting to the peak is the delivery part,” she said.
One daunting problem with some vaccines – such as the one developed by BioNTech-Pfizer – is that they need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures, sometimes as low as minus-103 degrees Fahrenheit. Other vaccine candidates do not need ultra-low temperatures, WHO said. The health agency says the ideal vaccine can be stored at room temperature.
“That is going to be quite a lift,” O’Brien said about shipping vaccines around the world at such low temperatures. She added that technologies, such as the use of dry ice, are available to achieve that.
The WHO is asking nations and wealthy donors to contribute to an effort to raise about $20 billion to distribute vaccines around the world. The WHO wants each nation to be able to vaccinate about 20% of its population, O’Brien said. Bringing the virus under control, and potentially eliminating it, will require between 60% and 70% of the world population becoming immune to it, WHO experts said.
O’Brien said $20 billion is a small amount considering the world economy is losing about $35 billion every 10 days due to lost trade and travel caused by the pandemic.
But vaccine hoarding by richer nations may end up hampering the WHO’s goals. A study by researchers at Duke University found that the EU and rich nations such as the United States, Japan, the U.K. and Canada have pre-purchased a large portion of the vaccine doses that may become available. Canada, it found, has bought enough vaccine doses to cover its population more than five times. The researchers said poorer countries may end up waiting until 2024 before they get vaccines.
Initially, governments are planning to use vaccines to get the most vulnerable people vaccinated, such as health workers and older populations. O’Brien said the WHO sees no reason to vaccinate children at this point. The coronavirus is most dangerous for older individuals and those with health problems.
A big unknown is how long people jabbed with vaccines will remain immune. “We don’t know about the duration of immunity because people will need to be followed” over time, she said.
Another uncertainty is whether the virus will mutate and make vaccines less effective. For example, Europe has been scared by the discovery of a new strain of the coronavirus found infecting mink farmers in Denmark.
Concern is mounting that the virus infected farmed minks, mutated and then infected humans. Since June, 214 people in Denmark have been infected with the new strain linked to farmed minks, according to the WHO. In response, the Danish government has ordered the mass culling of up to 17 million minks. The Netherlands also ordered a mass killing of farmed minks after outbreaks were discovered there among fur farms. Similar outbreaks have been found in Spain, Italy, Sweden and the U.S.
Swaminathan said tracking mutations in the virus is essential, but she said so far no mutation has taken place, including the one in minks, that would render the vaccines ineffective. She said the vaccines under development are targeting the coronavirus’ mode of attack which uses a spike of protein to invade a human cell.
“So far there is no evidence that any of the mutations that have been seen would have any impact on the immune response elicited by” the vaccines, Swaminathan said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.