Europe Stumbles As Infectious Variants Fuel Coronavirus Rise

The virus swept through a kindergarten and adjacent primary school in the Milan suburb of Bollate with astonishing speed. Within days, 45 children and 14 staff members tested positive.

Genetic analysis confirmed what officials already suspected: The highly contagious variant of coronavirus first identified in England was running through the community, a densely populated city of nearly 40,000 with a chemical plant and a 15-minute Pirelli bicycle tire factory. minutes by car from the heart of Milan. .

“This shows that the virus has a kind of intelligence. … We can lift all the barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end it adapts and penetrates them, ” lamented the mayor of Bollate, Francesco Vassallo.

Bollate was the first city in Lombardy, the northern region that has been the epicenter of each of Italy’s three waves, to be isolated from neighbors due to variants of the virus that, according to the World Health Organization, are driving another increase in infections across Europe. The variants also include versions first identified in South Africa and Brazil.

Europe recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases last week, a 9 percent increase from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline in new infections, the WHO said Thursday.

“The spread of the variants is driving the increase, but not only,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, citing “also the openness of society, when it is not done in a safe and controlled way. “

The variant first found in the UK is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by WHO and is dominant in at least 10 countries: Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.

It is up to 50 percent more transmissible than the virus that emerged last spring and again in the fall, making it more adept at thwarting previously effective measures, WHO experts warned. Scientists have concluded that it is also more deadly.

“This is why health systems are fighting harder now,” Kluge said. “It really is at a turning point. We have to stay strong and be very vigilant. “

In Lombardy, which suffered the brunt of Italy’s spring surge, intensive care wards are filling up again, with more than two-thirds of new positive tests being the UK variant, health officials said.

After putting two provinces and some 50 cities in a modified lockdown, Lombardy’s regional governor announced stricter restrictions on Friday and classrooms closed for all ages. Cases in Milan schools alone rose 33 percent in one week, the head of the provincial health system said.

The situation is dire in the Czech Republic, which this week saw a record total of almost 8,500 hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Poland is opening temporary hospitals and imposing a partial lockdown, as the UK variant has grown from 10 percent of all infections in February to 25 percent now.

Two patients from Slovakia were expected to arrive on Saturday for treatment in Germany, where authorities said they had offered to receive 10 patients.

Kluge cited Britain’s experience as cause for optimism, noting that widespread restrictions and the introduction of the vaccine have helped reduce variants there and in Israel. The launch of the vaccine in the European Union, by comparison, is being long delayed, mainly due to supply problems.

In Britain, the emergence of the most transmissible strain sent cases skyrocketing in December and triggered a national lockdown in January. Since then, cases have plummeted, from about 60,000 a day in early January to about 7,000 a day today.

Still, a study shows that the rate of decline is slowing, and the British government says it will exercise caution with plans to ease the lockdown. That process begins Monday with the reopening of schools. Infection rates are highest in people ages 13 to 17, and officials will be watching closely to see if back-to-school brings an increase in infections.

While the UK variant is dominant in France, forcing closures in the city of Nice on the French Riviera and the northern port of Dunkirk, the variant first detected in South Africa has emerged as the most prevalent in the French region of Moselle, which borders Germany and Luxembourg. It represents 55 percent of the virus that circulates there.

Austria’s health minister said on Saturday that the UK variant is now dominant in his country. But the South African variant is also a concern in an Austrian district stretching from Italy to Germany, with Austrian officials announcing plans to vaccinate most of the 84,000 residents there to curb its spread. Austria also requires motorists along the Brenner motorway, a major north-south route, to show negative test results.

The South African variant, now present in 26 European countries, is a source of particular concern due to doubts about whether current vaccines are effective enough against it. The Brazilian variant, which appears capable of reinfecting people, has been detected in 15 European countries.

WHO and its partners are working to strengthen the genetic surveillance necessary to track variants across the continent.

The mayor of Bollate has asked the regional governor to vaccinate the 40,000 residents immediately, although he hopes to be told that the supply of vaccines is too scarce.

Bollate has recorded 3,000 positive cases and 134 deaths, most among the elderly, since Italy was hit a year ago. He got the brunt of the resurgence in November and December, and was completely caught off guard when the UK variant arrived, running past school-age children before hitting families at home.

“People are starting to get tired because after a year there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” Vassallo said.

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