Europe is nearing a possible “truce” on Covid-19, Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s director in Europe, said on Thursday.
At a news conference, Kluge said he foresees a “plausible endgame to the pandemic” in Europe thanks to a congruence of three factors that present countries with a “unique opportunity to take control of the spread of the virus.”
Those factors, he explained, are a “pause in season as we come out of winter,” reduced disease severity from the highly transmissible omicron variant, and high levels of immune protection both thanks to strong vaccination rates in many countries and the abundance of omicron Distribution.
Together, these terms could lead to a “ceasefire that could bring us lasting peace,” he said.
Kluge’s comments come as many European countries – including Denmark, Norway and Switzerland – have already started lifting Covid-related restrictions as fears about Omicron’s impact ease.
“time to open up”
Kluge clarified that he was not suggesting that the pandemic was “over now.” According to the NBC News tally, many European countries have seen record numbers of cases recently. Denmark posted its highest seven-day moving average on Monday; The current number of 44,488 cases is just below that. Switzerland, on the other hand, set a record on Wednesday with an average of 36,277 cases. And the Netherlands hit its highest-ever average on Friday with 76,881 cases. However, daily deaths in all three countries remain low, with an average of 19 in Denmark, 14 in Switzerland and nine in the Netherlands.
Kluge said a new balance could be achievable if European countries continue to maintain immunity with vaccination and booster shots to ensure the most vulnerable are protected, while encouraging “self-protective behaviors and personal responsibility”.
Last week, the Netherlands announced that it would reopen bars, restaurants, theaters and museums from January 26 for the first time since mid-December.
Then on Tuesday, leaders in Denmark announced the end of all restrictions there. Hours later, Norway lifted a number of its coronavirus measures, including a ban on serving alcohol after 11pm and rules limiting private gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.
On Wednesday, the Czech Republic announced that starting next week, Covid passports will no longer be required to enter restaurants and other venues. Sweden and Switzerland joined the trend on Thursday as Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson announced it was “time to reopen Sweden”.
“Although the pandemic is not over yet, it has entered a whole new phase,” she said at a news conference.
Andersson said restaurants would no longer be subject to rules about capacity, social distancing, or opening hours from February 9. Vaccination and mask requirements on public transport will be abolished, as will guidelines for restricting social contacts.
Andersson urged employers whose employees work from home to “plan for a phased return to the workplace.”
Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of Sweden’s health agency, said the decision was not tied to a “herd immunity” measurement.
“Herd immunity is a difficult concept and different people interpret this concept differently,” Wisell said. “But if you look at society, how well can society protect itself from disease? We have reached a point where we have reached a point where we believe society can handle the situation with the high level of immunity that we now have.”
“The endemic phase can begin”
In Switzerland, meanwhile, officials announced on Thursday the end of a home office order and a quarantine requirement after contact with the virus.
“The government has noted a positive development in the hospitals – despite record high infection numbers, there was no congestion and the occupancy of the intensive care units has continued to decrease,” the Swiss government said in a statement.
“There are increasing signs that the acute crisis will soon be over and the endemic phase can begin,” it said.
A virus can be considered endemic when it achieves a fairly low, stable, and predictable distribution.
But Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said a transition from pandemic to endemic isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.
“The word ‘endemic’ is [being] used as a good word to mean it’s all over,” he said. “To me, endemic is the word I use for HIV and malaria. Endemic is a terrible word.”
Regarding the current lifting of restrictions in Europe, Altmann said only time will tell if this proves wise.
“How that turns out and whether that’s foolhardy or not is kind of in the hands of biology, isn’t it?” he said.
US leaders offer a different message
Public health leaders in the US are advising a more cautious approach compared to many of their European counterparts, saying it’s too early to abandon precautions like masking.
dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed to hospitalization rates as an important metric to monitor.
“Our hospitalization rates are still quite high and certainly still have hospital capacity issues in many parts of the country,” she said during a White House Covid-19 Task Force briefing on Wednesday. “We really need to watch our hospitalization rates and our death rates when it comes time to reverse some of these mitigation efforts.”
dr Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said experts still don’t know when Covid will stop affecting people’s daily lives in the US because it depends on achieving higher levels of popular immunity. As of Friday, nearly 64 percent of people in the United States were fully vaccinated.
Fauci said he hopes the country will get to that point “sooner rather than later,” adding that he believes the US is “going in the right direction now.”