The number of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are approaching or surpassing record highs across Europe just weeks after countries lifted pandemic restrictions and outlined plans to live with the virus, which could be a warning sign for the U.S., where numbers have been falling for weeks, but which tends to follow trends in Europe.
Covid infections are on the rise across Europe including in France, the U.K., Ireland, Switzerland, Finland and Italy, and are respectively nearing or surpassing record highs in Germany and Austria, according to official data collated by Our World in Data.
Many of these countries—including the U.K., France, the Netherlands and Belgium—are also reporting increases in the number of Covid-19 hospital admissions, according to Our World in Data, and the number of Covid deaths in the region have also started to modestly increase including in the U.K., Sweden, Slovakia, Ireland and Iceland.
The Covid burden for many European countries was already high before the recent surge, though several are now fighting outbreaks that rank among the world’s very worst: excluding territories with a population smaller than 1 million, European nations account for 16 of the highest 20 death rates (including four in the top five) and 19 of the top 25 highest case rates.
While there is no unifying feature behind the surge, experts told Forbes the uptick is likely driven by a mixture of relaxed pandemic restrictions, waning immunity and the more infectious BA.2 variant of omicron.
Though the number of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the U.S. have fallen significantly in recent weeks, Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California at Berkeley, told Forbes the situation in Europe could presage another coronavirus wave in the U.S.
What happens in Europe, and especially in the U.K., tends to happen in the U.S. with a “few weeks lag,” Swartzberg explained, adding that “there’s every reason to think this pattern will hold for the immediate future.”
Even as cases soared, a growing number of European countries—including the U.K., Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland—have scrapped almost all Covid restrictions under plans to live with the virus. Officials across the region have repeatedly cited the availability of vaccines and treatments, and lower rates of serious illness with omicron, when justifying the decision.
Austria even dropped its controversial law requiring compulsory vaccination for all adults, with its minister in charge of constitutional affairs saying the mandate was no longer “proportionate” with the disease. The figures across Europe are likely just the “tip of the iceberg,” warned World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Ordinarily, disease surveillance usually misses a large number of Covid cases and there are differences in how each nation records its Covid deaths and hospital admissions. This is made worse by the fact that many countries are also taking steps to dismantle the testing infrastructure used to keep tabs on the pandemic at the same time as lifting restrictions, a move experts warn hampers the ability to detect new variants.
There are early signs Covid-19 rates may already be rising across the U.S., according to the CDC’s monitoring of wastewater sewage. As the genetic material of the virus that causes Covid-19 can be detected in sewage, wastewater surveillance has been used as an early warning system to help predict new outbreaks. Coronavirus rates have risen at 38% of the hundreds of wastewater sampling sites tracked by the CDC over the last two weeks.
When it comes to Covid, the United States specializes in denialism,” wrote Dr. Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, in the Guardian. It has denied human-to-human transmission of the virus when the first cases were publicized in China, denied the virus is airborne and denied the need for boosters, Topol said.
But one denial in particular now one stands out, Topol said: learning from other countries. “The United Kingdom and Europe have provided five unmistakable warnings to America that a new surge was occurring. Within weeks, each time, the United States experienced a new wave, some not as severe (such as with the Alpha variant), some worse (Delta and Omicron variants).
From this Covid track record over two years, it is palpable: what happens in the U.K. and Europe doesn’t stay in the UK and Europe.” The current surge in the U.K. and Europe “is the sixth warning… to the United States,” Topol said.
While the BA.2 subvariant appears to be 1.5 times as infectious as the previous iteration of the Omicron variant, according to early data, there’s no evidence indicating the new version causes more severe disease than its predecessors.
Some reports have described BA.2 as harder to track than BA.1. Scientists tracked the spread of the original Omicron variant by looking for a specific genetic mutation, which BA.2 lacks.
The subvariant will still cause someone to test positive for COVID-19 on a PCR test, but it’ll take extra genetic analysis for researchers to connect new cases to the Omicron lineage.
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