COVID Resurgence in Europe Brings New Records — and Restrictions

Michael Schulson

November 22, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Covid-19 cases continued to climb across Europe this week, prompting fresh public health restrictions in some countries. The wave of infections has also fanned concerns in the United States about a larger than hoped-for winter surge.

Cases began to rise steadily in Europe in September. By Nov. 4, with Covid-19 cases and fatalities mounting on the continent, Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization's regional director for Europe, told reporters that Europe was "back at the epicenter of the pandemic."

While countries with high vaccination rates — including Portugal, Italy, and Spain — have experienced an uptick in cases, the outbreak has hit hardest in countries with large pockets of unvaccinated people, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

In Germany, where around 68 percent of people are fully vaccinated — more than the U.S., but lower than many other European countries — case rates earlier this month surpassed a record set in December 2020. Still, vaccination has mitigated the number of severe cases in Germany and other countries experiencing a surge.

In Austria, which has lower vaccination rates than most other wealthy European nations, policymakers have implemented vigorous restrictions on those choosing to forego vaccination. In a policy that went into effect on Monday, unvaccinated people are "allowed to leave their homes only for work, food shopping, or emergencies," according to NPR. On Friday, the country's leaders broadened restrictions, announcing a national lockdown to begin next week.

The situation is worse in Eastern Europe, where vaccine uptake has lagged and fatality rates in some countries are reaching new records. In Russia, authorities reported 1,254 Covid-19 fatalities on Friday, higher than at any other point in the pandemic. (The country's mortality data has not always been reliable.) Russia, the first country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, thanks to an accelerated process that controversially bypassed late-stage clinical trials, also has a long history as a global purveyor of medical disinformation campaigns. Vaccination rates there hover just above one-third of the population, lower than nearly any other middle or upper-income country.

What the rising cases in Europe mean for the U.S. is unclear. They may offer a warning: As The Los Angeles Times observed last week, "in the nearly two years since the pandemic began, Europe's waves of infection have often presaged similar suffering across the Atlantic." Indeed, late last week, The Washington Post reported that the rise in cases in Europe has alarmed White House officials, leading some to push for a more rapid expansion of booster shots. The Food and Drug Administration complied this week by authorizing boosters of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for all adults — something already permitted in some parts of the country. (Even without a booster, authorized vaccines offer robust, lasting protection against severe cases of Covid-19 for most adults.)

Despite the warning signs from Europe, there's also reason to be cautiously optimistic. While Covid-19 remains a threat, scientific research has yielded significant tools since the peak last winter, when more than 3,000 Americans were dying from Covid-19 each day and vaccines were scare. More than 99 percent of people aged 65 and above — who account for the lion's share of severe Covid-19 cases and fatalities — have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to federal data. In addition, pending authorization from federal regulators, a pair of promising antiviral drugs may soon help cut down the rates of severe infection among people who do contract Covid-19. Meanwhile, testing capacity is growing, perhaps allowing more nimble, targeted responses to outbreaks.

Undark's Abstracts column first noted the threat of a novel coronavirus on January 10, 2020. Since then, the Undark team has worked diligently to offer weekly updates on the pandemic — all part of Abstracts' five-years-and-running effort to furnish readers with a roundup of essential science news.

But, at least for now, this is the final installment: Abstracts is ending. Undark's original, in-depth coverage of Covid-19, and much else, will continue. To keep track of what's next, sign up for Undark's weekly newsletter. If you have story tips or feedback, write us a note. And to all: Thanks for reading.

Also in the News:

  • As the COP26 climate talks drew to a close in Glasgow last weekend, world leaders worked overtime to come to terms on a global agreement to address climate change. The final deal, agreed to by nearly 200 countries on Saturday, calls on governments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, establishes rules governing international carbon markets, and reaffirms the world's goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. Experts call the agreement a significant step that nevertheless falls short of what's needed to stave off climate catastrophe. "COP26 has closed the gap," climate researcher Niklas Hoehne told Nature, "but it has not solved the problem." Onlookers expressed particular disappointment in language that called for the phasing down, rather than phasing out, of coal-fired power. The agreement also leaves key questions about financing climate efforts of lower-income countries unaddressed. Still, Harvard University economist Robert Stavins said the deal was "basically as good as one could hope for." Attention now turns to Capitol Hill, where a clutch of centrist Democrats will decide the fate of President Biden's Build Back Better plan, a $1.75 trillion proposal that includes $555 billion in climate spending. The House is expected to vote on the measure as soon as this week. (Nature)

  • Scientists reported this week that they had identified a second person infected with HIV whose immune system successfully fended off the disease without medical help. In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers said they'd scanned more than a billion cells from a 30-year-old Argentinian woman, identified only as "Patient Esperanza," without finding a trace of active virus — even though the woman had received no antiviral medical care. The finding follows last year's announcement that a 67-year-old California woman's immune system had also apparently wiped out HIV infection without help. "This is really the miracle of the human immune system that did it," said one of the authors of this week's report, according to NBC News, adding that the next step is to figure out what distinguishes the immune system of these two patients. More than 38 million people around the world live with HIV, but before these two patients were discovered, the only people considered fully cured of HIV were two men treated with an experimental stem cell therapy. Since then, though, researchers have come to suspect that a small group of people possess immune systems unusually capable of fending off the infection without help, even if some traces of the virus typically remain in their bodies. The next step is to figure out what lies behind that special ability — and to perhaps use that knowledge to help others. (STAT)

  • On Monday, passengers aboard the International Space Station had to shelter in place due to space debris from a Russian missile blast. According to The Verge, the ground-based missile likely hit an old Russian satellite named Kosmos 1408, breaking it into more than 1,500 trackable chunks and thousands of smaller, untraceable pieces. NASA reported that the shot was a test of one of Russia's anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs. The weapons are designed to take out satellites and, as The Verge notes, countries test them in order to show off their destructive capabilities. ASAT tests also add to low orbital debris — bits of human-made waste from abandoned vehicles, satellites, and more, which travel at about 17,500 miles per hour and threaten functional technology, including the ISS. The Russian test apparently came without warning; at a press briefing, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department called it "dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible." But Russia didn't break any laws, because existing laws — which, some experts argue, are woefully outdated — don't cover most space weapons, although they do bar the use of weapons of mass destruction in space. As Daniel Porras, a Space Security Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, told Undark last year: "What worries us in the international community is that there aren't necessarily any guard rails for how people are going to start interfering with others' space systems. There are no rules of engagement." (The Verge)

  • And finally: In a recent study published in the journal Animals, scientists showed evidence that the drawings of orangutans may reflect their individual personalities and abilities. Scientists analyzed more than 1,400 drawings done by five orangutans at the Tama Zoological Park over a 10 year period. Most of the pictures were made by Molly, an orangutan who started drawing at the age of 54. The scientists contrasted her work with younger primates and found variations in the pressure with which the crayon was applied, as well as the area they covered while drawing. According to Science, Molly pressed her crayons lightly compared to a 10-year-old orangutan. She liked using fewer colors and covered less area while drawing. Also, her color preferences changed over different seasons: For example, she would use green when drawing in summer and winter and purple in spring. Researchers also looked at the time duration for which an orangutan drew. Studying these primate drawings, the scientists hope to find answers to what would have motivated our human ancestors to produce rock or cave art. (Science)

"Also in the News" items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Sudhi Oberoi, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

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