Picture: 123RF/FORBUSI
Picture: 123RF/FORBUSI

The growing threat of the delta coronavirus variant in the EU has prompted a new warning from the bloc’s disease prevention agency about the pace of vaccinations and not rushing reopenings.

The mutation, first seen in India, is considered even more infectious than the alpha strain, and could hamper efforts to get past the pandemic. It accounts for at least 20% of new cases in Ireland and parts of Germany, while in localised hotspots such as Lisbon, the figure is above 60%.

In a threat assessment published on Wednesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said it was likely that the variant would “circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination”.

The delta variant has already taken hold in the UK, and governments across the EU have said it’s likely to become the dominant strain in their countries. But officials are somewhat in the dark about its current prevalence, given the low rates of genetic analysis in many countries.

While the delta variant is increasingly dominant in Europe, that’s happening as overall Covid-19 cases are plunging across most of the continent to the lowest levels since 2020’s summer.

The risk for Europe is a repeat of the dynamic that played out at the start of 2021 when lockdown measures had brought down Covid-19 levels until another strain, the alpha variant, spread rapidly. That triggered a fresh wave of infections and another round of restrictions on movement and businesses.

One big difference now is that vaccination campaigns have kicked up a gear, meaning far more people are at least partially protected. Across the EU, almost 48% have got one shot.

But the ECDC said that those who had only received one dose were more vulnerable to delta compared with other variants, and second doses should be administered “within the minimum authorised interval”.

Despite being at the centre of the delta outbreak, some UK figures offer reason for hope. New Covid-19 cases are back at levels last seen in February, but there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in hospitalisations or deaths.

While there’s a lag between increases in positive tests and deaths, the figures suggest the UK could break the link between the two, and that the situation will not get as out of control as before.

That’s good news for governments as they push on with reopening their economies. From the start of July, the EU’s digital Covid-19 certificates will come into use, allowing free movement between the bloc’s 27 member states if people can prove vaccination, recovery or a negative test.

“There are still too many individuals at risk,” said ECDC director Andrea Ammon. “Until most of the vulnerable individuals are protected, we need to keep the circulation of the delta virus low by strictly adhering to public health measures, which worked for controlling the impact of other variants.”

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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