The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating again as new infections rise in the Americas and Europe, the pandemic’s epicenters. The death toll in Europe surpassed 1 million on Friday, and Paris was sent into a new lockdown.
(CN) — Pushing vaccination as the means to both revive social and economic life before the start of summer, as well as prevent a fresh wave of death, Europe solemnly marked the milestone of 1 million deaths from Covid-19 on Friday.
The number also includes about 127,270 deaths in Russia that Rosstat, the country’s statistics agency, counts as caused by Covid-19 but which do not show up on Russia’s official coronavirus death toll.
Come midnight, Paris and other parts of France are set to begin new lockdowns that will last at least a month. The French capital resisted a lockdown as long as it could, but, with infections on the rise, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said it had to be done.
“More and more this is looking like a third wave,” Castex said at a news conference Thursday. A year ago, France imposed its first nationwide lockdown.
French President Emmanuel Macron has vehemently opposed a third national lockdown and instead said local lockdowns can work. The spike in Europe is linked to the spread of a more contagious strain that first emerged last year in southern England.
“Let’s be clear, we’re in a third wave mostly down to the rise of this famous British variant,” Macron said this week following a meeting with health officials. “The situation is critical. It’s going to be very hard until mid-April.”
With 4.1 million cases detected since the pandemic started, France has recorded the sixth-highest number of infections in the world and the third highest in Europe, after Russia and the United Kingdom. In recent days, though, it has begun recording the highest number of infections in Europe with about 38,500 on Wednesday and nearly 35,000 Thursday.
Germany, too, is tightening restrictions and Hamburg, its second-biggest city, was set to go under a full lockdown on Saturday because of rising cases. German Health Minister Jens Spahn the increase in infections across Germany may require several more weeks of restrictions.
Similar lockdowns and restrictions remain in place across Europe, which along with the Americas has borne the vast majority of the pandemic’s cruelty. The two regions account for about 82% of the global death toll. The death toll in North America stands at nearly 800,000, with most of those in the United States and Mexico, and at about 510,000 in South America, according to Worldometer.
In the Americas, Brazil remains the epicenter of the pandemic. The country simply can’t get the pandemic under control and since November it has not enjoyed a respite. On Wednesday, it recorded 90,830 new infections, a new record. The past week was the worst yet in South America’s largest country with 14,671 deaths.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is faulted for the tragic situation. When the virus emerged a year ago, he dismissed it as little more than another flu virus and refused to impose lockdowns. As the months progressed, neither physical distancing measures nor a mass vaccination plan received his backing.
This week, the country saw the resignation of its third health minister since the pandemic started.
During his 10 months as health minister, army General Eduardo Pazuello earned the nickname “Pesadello” (“Nightmare” in Portguese) for his terrible handling of the health crisis. Under his watch, about 260,000 Brazilians died from the virus. Two previous health ministers left office after disagreements with Bolsonaro.
Pazuello, who had no experience in health care when he took office, is under investigation for the collapse of the health system in the city of Manaus in the Amazon. The city endured a massive outbreak and hospitals ran out of oxygen for patients.
This new grim phase of the pandemic underscores just how difficult it will be to gain control of the virus.
“After six weeks of declining cases in January and February, we are now on track for a fourth consecutive week of increasing cases,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization director-general, during a Friday news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters.
Tedros called it urgent that the world quicken the pace of vaccine production, get them shipped to every corner of the globe and into the arms of people everywhere. The WHO is concerned that richer countries are hoarding vaccines and that this will allow the virus to continue spreading and mutating in poorer parts of the world.
“While I’m pleased that almost 150 countries have now started vaccinating, we still face serious barriers in ramping up production and distribution,” he said.
The road to vaccinating the world will be long and difficult. This week, the British government warned that it was facing shortages in vaccines and that its rapid pace of inoculation may slow down. Britain was among the first nations to begin mass vaccinations, and it has jumped ahead in Europe. Russia too said it is facing shortages of its Sputnik V vaccine.
Global vaccination efforts were boosted on Thursday when European medicines regulators announced that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines is safe and effective.
Use of the vaccine was halted in 13 European countries following concerns that it may cause blood clots in rare cases. The European Medicines Agency said it could not rule out that the vaccine may trigger blood clotting disorders in rare cases, but its experts said its benefits far outweigh the risks. By Friday, most European nations had resumed using the vaccine.
Tedros welcomed the EMA’s findings. WHO experts also evaluated the vaccine’s risk and declared it safe on Friday.
“We urge countries to continue using this important vaccine,” Tedros said.
The vaccine is manufactured by the University of Oxford and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. The manufacturers have said they do not want to make a profit from their product, and it has become a central pillar in global vaccination efforts. Tedros said it accounts for more than 90% of the stockpile of vaccines being distributed through an initiative the WHO is overseeing to get vaccines to poorer countries. Besides the WHO initiative, China and Russia are providing their vaccines to many countries. The WHO has not approved those vaccines for use yet.
On Friday, political leaders in Europe were stepping up to get the AstraZeneca shot to boost confidence. Castex, the French prime minister, was seen rolling up his sleeve to get the jab as did Slovenia’s political leaders. In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did the same and exclaimed: “I didn’t feel a thing.”
Still, many people may be unwilling to take the vaccine: not only because they may harbor doubts stirred up by a week of alarming news coverage about possible deaths linked to the vaccine but also because scientists — in Germany and Norway — said they had found a link between the vaccine and blood clots. These experts said the vaccine triggers a strong immune response that can lead to a rare combination of blood clots and low blood platelet counts. Experts also said the condition might be treatable.
Dr. Bruce Alyward, a senior adviser at the WHO, said people should feel more confident about the AstraZeneca vaccine following the in-depth reviews.
“What people are really looking for are these things being properly assessed, properly evaluated, and that’s really been the case with this vaccine,” Alyward said. “It’s a great vaccine; it is one of the most important products in the rollout of these vaccines globally. … So, hopefully, populations globally are going to have even greater confidence that these vaccines are being properly scrutinized.”
Meanwhile Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, said he was concerned that days of media coverage about the vaccine’s possible risks will make people less willing to be inoculated with it.
Ryan blamed the 24-hour news cycle. “What will be left in the aftermath of that is very confused people who now have some doubts in their minds; that’s the awful outcome of this,” he said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.