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Far From Over: Europe Struggles to Rein In Virus

(CN) — A year after the novel coronavirus was found circulating out of control in Italy, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic, Europe is once again struggling to contain the virus.

Across a weary Europe, fears are growing that the hard-hit continent may be clobbered by another wave of infections and deaths caused by the spread of more contagious strains of the deadly virus.

“We have clear signs: The third wave in Germany has already begun," said Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's infectious disease agency, on Wednesday.

Germany, like elsewhere in Europe, is seeing new infections rise and reported more than 14,000 new cases on Thursday.

Making matters worse, the European Union is struggling to vaccinate its populations due to vaccine shortages and missteps by the EU's bureaucrats, who were given the task of coordinating vaccine purchasing for the entire bloc.

Europeans are bracing for new restrictions and lockdowns as countries record a rise in infections after seeing declines in January and February.

France is reporting the highest number of new daily infections in Europe, though on a per capita basis the Czech Republic is by far Europe's worst hot spot. For every 100,000 residents, the country also known as Czechia is reporting about 1,570 new infections compared to 444 in France, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1.3 million of the 10.7 million people living in Czechia have contracted Covid-19 and about 22,865 deaths there have been linked to the virus.

On Thursday, Olivier Veran, France's health minister, said new strains of the virus “are more contagious and more dangerous” and account for about two-thirds of France's infections.

In reality, France isn't really seeing a new wave as much as enduring an unrelenting wave of sickness that hasn't subsided since December, though the daily death toll has diminished a bit. France has recorded about 90,000 deaths.

What worries French authorities is an increase of patients in intensive care units. There are close to 4,000 people now in ICUs. Veran said a new patient is taken into an ICU every 12 minutes in the greater Paris region. Officials are contemplating placing Paris under a tighter lockdown.

People wait in a line to receive their COVID-19 vaccine at the Brussels Expo center in Brussels, Thursday, March 4, 2021. The Expo is one of the largest vaccination centers in Belgium. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Italy is in bad shape too and it's getting worse. After enjoying a lifting of restrictions in February, much of Italy is at risk of going back into tight lockdowns.

On Friday, Italy saw another rise in infections and reported 26,824 new cases compared to 25,673 the day before. Its death toll rose by 380, bringing it to a total of 101,564 fatalities since the pandemic began a year ago. Only the U.K. has recorded more deaths than Italy in Europe with 125, 343 fatalities.

But the situation is much better in the U.K., which was crushed by a staggering wave of death between December and February. During that period, it reported a peak of 1,823 new deaths on Jan. 20. Since December, though, the U.K. has rolled out about 24.3 million vaccine doses, by far the most in Europe.

The terrible wave of sickness that hit the U.K. was linked to a more contagious and dangerous strain of the virus that first appeared in southern England. Through lockdowns, vaccinations, border closings, tracking down people infected with dangerous strains and other measures, the U.K. has brought its epidemic under control. It is now reporting under 6,000 new infections a day and about 160 new deaths a day.

Across the English Channel, though, the fear is that the dangerous strain found in the U.K., and others from South Africa and Brazil, are now set to cause the kind of havoc the U.K. suffered. But with a shortage of vaccines, the EU is in danger of not being able to stop a surge in cases.

About 35 out of every 100 people in the U.K. have received a vaccine while only about 10 out of every 100 EU residents have been vaccinated, according to figures tracked by Our World in Data, a research group affiliated with Oxford University.

The EU's vaccine rollout has been slow in part because it took longer than others, most notably the U.K. and the United States, to reach deals with vaccine makers and to approve vaccines for use. Next, the EU was hit by delays in vaccine supplies from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca, vaccine manufacturers. As anger broke out over the EU's poor handling of the vaccine program, the bloc has tried to block vaccines made in the EU from being shipped elsewhere. Last week, Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia.

Europe's vaccination woes worsened on Thursday after Denmark said it was suspending the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over fears that it may cause blood clots and may have caused deaths. Still, European and WHO medical authorities said the vaccine is safe and that there is no evidence it causes blood clots.

The EU had hoped to make the AstraZeneca a centerpiece to its vaccination drive, but the vaccine has become a contentious issue after AstraZeneca failed to meet the EU's supply demands. Subsequently, EU officials called into doubt the vaccine's efficacy and reportedly people have become reluctant to receive it.

On Friday, EU authorities approved the use of a vaccine by Johnson & Johnson, bringing its vaccine portfolio to four products.

The EU hopes to ramp up vaccine deliveries in the coming months and to triple supplies between April and June to at least 300 million doses. About 448 million people live in the EU.

Controversially, some EU countries – including France and Italy – have looked at using Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccines, which have not yet been approved by EU regulators. Regardless, Hungary began vaccinating its residents with both vaccines last month. Slovakia too announced it's buying 2 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine and this week Italy said it will allow the Russian vaccine to be made in Italy. Plans call for 10 million doses to be made this year at an Italian facility.

This week on Austrian television, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, an Austrian at the head of the European Medicines Agency's management board, caused a row after she said countries that approve the use of Russian and Chinese vaccines is “partly comparable with Russian roulette.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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