COVID-19: Europe is back to November 2020 numbers, severe cases higher

Vaccine-immunity waning; infections to peak in end-January 2022 at 2.6 million cases in worst-case scenario
Closed stalls in the usually busy market and bar area of Naschmarkt, Vienna during lockdown in 2020. Austria imposed another round of complete lockdown November 22, 2021. Photo: iStock
Closed stalls in the usually busy market and bar area of Naschmarkt, Vienna during lockdown in 2020. Austria imposed another round of complete lockdown November 22, 2021. Photo: iStock

Europe once again finds itself in the centre of a resurgence of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Several countries have gone into lockdown to contain the fresh surge of cases. 

Daily infections and deaths in the continent are nearly the same as that recorded in November 2020, when Europe was in the middle of its second wave, according to latest projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent population health research centre at University of Washington School of Medicine. 

What is more worrying is that severe cases have gone up this time, as evident from the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU) across Europe. 

In November 2020, the requirement for ICU beds was between 25,000 and 42,000. This month, the figure is over 100,000.

Countries with the biggest increase in caseload are the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Norway, Poland and Slovakia. 

Dr Christopher JL Murray, director and lead modeller of IHME, said on November 18, 2021: 

In the northern hemisphere, we believe this to be the expected increase due to winter. But the spike is more intense in places which, paradoxically, have done a better job during the pandemic and have lower levels of natural immunity.

Meanwhile, transmission rate in countries of eastern Europe such as Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, Russian Federation and the Baltic states, is decreasing despite low vaccination rates and dramatically high infections in the past.

In November 2020, there were 4,000-6,000 daily deaths in Europe. This month, the range is 4,600-5,400, according to IHME. 

Daily infections last November stood between 200,000 and 260,000, which increased to 229,000-250,000 this month. 

“What we are witnessing is a combination of winter, waning vaccine-derived immunity and the level of past infections,” Murray said, adding that the winter surge in the northern hemisphere may be worse than current projections owing to waning immunity.

At present, 55 per cent of the population in Europe is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, IHME data showed. A large share of this immunised population received their jab about three months ago — 40 per cent of all Europeans were fully vaccinated by the end of August 2021. 

However, the current IHME model doesn’t include waning of immunity, whether it is from vaccination or natural infection. “We are transitioning into one that does and are hoping to release it by early December,” Murray underlines.

If the current conditions persist, COVID-19 cases are expected to hover around 930,000 in December and begin to decline thereafter, touching 420,000 by March, IHME predicted. 

In the worst-case scenario, cases will peak in January, with over 2.6 million and will decline rapidly if masks are used universally. 

European countries have introduced a slew of restrictions to contain the surge. Austria has imposed a complete lockdown since Monday — the first country to do so in western Europe. The Netherlands announced a partial lockdown, while Germany and Czechia have imposed restrictions for the unvaccinated. Spain, Poland and Hungary have not lifted the mask mandate.

Five regions outside Europe have also reported a rise in COVID-19 cases, said Murray. These include South America’s Bolivia, Columbia and most notably, Chile; a cluster of countries in the West Asia, including Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria; Southeast Asia’s Laos and Vietnam; and some northern states in the United States of America such as Michigan among other northern states. 

Much like Europe, the number of infections and deaths across the world are beginning to mirror that recorded a year ago. In November last year, global daily deaths were between 8,000 and 11,000, while this month a little over 7,000 daily fatalities have been reported.

Global daily infections this month is between 370,000 and 450,000, compared to 480,000-470,000 last November.

A steady decline will begin by mid-December, IHME estimated. Cases and fatalities will peak in January-end, with over 24,000 daily deaths, in the worst-case scenario, the institute predicted. 

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