Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants
An illustration photo of a positive Covid-19 rapid antigen test. Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

Member comments

  1. I just recovered from COVID …. I am completely vaccinated with the two doses and 1 booster shot …. I was scheduled for my 2nd booster in July (6 months after my first booster) but that has been canceled …. I have not had my blood tested to see if I now have the COVID antibody … Am I still eligible for the second booster shot ? Do I have to wait another 6 months before the second booster shot ? Does, having had COVID now preclude me from booster shots ?

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Norway does not expect return of Covid-19 restrictions this summer despite wave

Health authorities in Norway say that Covid-19 cases will increase in the country this summer as a new subvariant of the virus emerges, but the return of restrictions in not expected.

Norway does not expect return of Covid-19 restrictions this summer despite wave

A new subvariant, BA. 5, which has emerged from earlier versions of the Omicron variant, is expected to become dominant in Norway within the coming weeks.

“We expect a small wave,” Preben Aavitsland, Chief Physician at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), told news wite NTB.

“But we do not expect it to be as big as in February-April. That means that a few hundred thousand Norwegians will be infected, some for the second time,” he said.

The earlier, dominant forms of Omicron, BA. 1 and BA. 2, are thought to have infected between 2-3 million people in Norway, according to NIPH.

The spread of the new subvariant can be attributed in part to waning immunity in the community, according to Aavitsland.

The new variant has not so far shown evidence of causing more serious illness than previous forms of Omicron.

“It may appear that BA. 5 gives mild symptoms in a few more people than BA. 2 did, but so far we have no basis to think that hospital admissions will be higher,” Aavitsland told NTB.

New restrictions are not likely, the senior medical official said.

“It is very unlikely that we will recommend any measures other than a fourth (vaccine) dose for some groups. It is likely that those over 65 years old and risk groups will be recommended a fourth dose at some point,” he said.

The assistant director at the Norwegian Directorate of Health, Espen Nakstad, told NTB that BA. 5 is likely to become dominant across Europe this summer but also said that Norwegian restrictions were unlikely.

Currently, Norwegians are asked to stay at home if they have tested positive or suspect thay have Covid-19. That advice will remain in place while home testing could become more widespread, according to Nakstad.

“We have a poor insight into the extent of infections in Norway and Europe now but we can see from inpatient numbers that infections have increased a little in June,” he told NTB.

The number of people with Covid-19 at Norwegian hospitals has increased for three consecutive weeks and stood at 130 last week. That is a 67 percent increase over two weeks, but far lower than the 545 inpatients with Covid registered in late March.

“In the bigger picture, the virus will have greater and greater problems infecting many people because community immunity will increase through vaccination and previous infection. This also applies with the BA. 5 variant,” he said.