(CN) — The World Health Organization on Thursday issued a dire warning that a worrying rise in coronavirus infections in Europe could lead to hundreds of thousands of more deaths unless governments take quick action to rein in the pandemic.
The warning comes as the official death toll from the pandemic surpassed 5 million this week and there are fears the world may be at the start of a fourth wave of the pandemic. About 50,000 people are dying from the virus each week, about half the number at the peak last winter. The actual death toll from the pandemic is estimated to be much higher than 5 million.
Also this week, the fight against the virus got two new weapons. On Thursday, the United Kingdom became the first nation to approve use of a Merck-manufactured antiviral pill shown to successfully treat Covid-19. Also, the WHO gave the green light to Covaxin, a coronavirus vaccine developed in India, making it the eighth vaccine approved by the United Nations health agency.
In Europe, meanwhile, the situation is looking bad once again as the colder months arrive. The virus is spreading quickly in many parts of Europe since the reopening of schools, the end of summer and as people spend more time indoors.
On Thursday, Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO's regional director in Europe, said the agency's extensive European region, which includes parts of Central Asia, is seeing near-record caseloads of Covid-19 infections.
“The current pace of transmission across the 53 countries of the WHO European region is of grave concern,” he said. “If we stay on this trajectory, we could see another half a million Covid-19 deaths in Europe and Central Asia by the first of February next year.”
Since September, parts of Eastern Europe have been registering devastating numbers of infections and deaths. Globally, Russia is reporting the highest death tolls. On Wednesday, it hit a new daily record for deaths after 1,189 fatalities were reported. Ukraine is also in the midst of a tragic outbreak and it is reporting more than 540 deaths on average a day, according to Worldometer. Romania, too, is reporting more than 430 deaths on average a day, by far the most among the 27 states that make up the European Union.
Vaccination rates in Eastern Europe are much lower than those in Western Europe. In Russia, only about 39% of adults are inoculated even though Russia was the first country to approve use of a vaccine, its Sputnik V. But many Russians are doubtful about the vaccine, which has not been approved by the WHO and EU regulators. In Ukraine, only 25% of adults have been inoculated, according to Our World in Data.
In Romania, about 40% of the adult population has been inoculated, one of the lowest rates in the EU, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
But alarm bells are going off in Western Europe too.
Germany reported a record number of new cases on Thursday with 33,949. Health Minister Jens Spahn said Germany was living in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” About 80% of Germany's adults are vaccinated. It also has reported a spike in deaths in recent days with 184 on Wednesday and 165 on Thursday, according to the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's health agency.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, said other regions need to heed what is taking place in Europe .
“I think it's a warning shot for the world to see what's happening in Europe despite the availability of vaccination,” he said at a news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters.
“The fact that Europe is climbing that mountain again [of new cases] should really stand everybody up around the world and say, 'What are we going to do?'” Ryan said. “Because Europe does have the capacity; they have the vaccine access; they have the money; they have the systems in place that can react. Many other regions don't necessarily have those capacities in place.”
Ryan said the spike in Europe can be attributed to a summer of gatherings, travel and loosening of restrictions.
“At the moment we seem to be hell bent on a course that says the pandemic is over and we just need to vaccinate a few more and this will all be over,” he said. “That is not the case.”
With cases rising again, European countries are considering reimposing restrictions, such as mask mandates in public places and stricter use of vaccine passports to get into restaurants and other indoor spaces. Vaccine mandates are already in place for many workers.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.