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Delta variant spreading in Europe, but unlikely to rival earlier pandemic waves

ROME, July 25 (Xinhua) — As the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads across Europe, most countries are banking on a combination of new restrictions and faster vaccine rollouts to help slow the spread of the virus.

According to the latest weekly summary from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the documented infection rate in the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA) was 89.6 cases per 100,000 residents for the week ending on July 11. During the previous week, the equivalent figure was 51.6.

That figure is likely to get far worse before it gets better, according to the center. Its model predicted the figure will rise to 622.9 per 100,000 people by the end of this month.

The ECDC models predicted that by the end of August, 90 percent of the coronavirus infections on the continent will be caused by the fast-moving and highly transmissible Delta variant, first detected in India.

Though vaccines created to confront earlier versions of the virus appear to be effective against this new variant, the effectiveness is diminished among those who have received just one of two vaccine doses, according to Daniel Altmann, an immunologist with Imperial College in London. The Delta variant also appears to be spreading fastest among those under the age of 30, the demographic with the lowest vaccination rate in most European countries.

“The Delta variant changes the strategies countries will adopt to slow the pandemic, because the Delta variant could cause breakthrough infections in those who have a relatively weak vaccine response, and in younger people,” Altmann told Xinhua, using the term “breakthrough infections” to refer to those who get infected despite being at least partially vaccinated.

Altmann noted that those who are fully vaccinated are still “highly protected” against all known forms of the virus, including the Delta variant. That means they are less likely to be infected, and if they are infected, the symptoms are less likely to be severe.

But the problem is there are many millions of eligible Europeans who have not yet been vaccinated. According to the ECDC’s vaccine tracker, 53.6 percent of those in the EU and the EEA aged 18 or above have been fully vaccinated. That amounts to more than 250 million people.

Some countries are using innovative strategies to help encourage people to get vaccinated. In Italy, for example, the government issued a decree this week requiring proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test, or proof of coronavirus antibodies from a previous infection to have access to indoor restaurants, sports facilities, concerts, and other venues starting Aug. 6. The move sparked protests around the country, but it also reportedly resulted in an increase in vaccination appointments of between 15 and 200 percent, depending on the area.

According to Francesco Luchetta, an analyst specializing in coronavirus data, European countries are using a combination of health restrictions and efforts to vaccinate more people to confront the problem, though some are emphasizing one part of the equation more than the other. Luchetta, who operates a social media information site called “Coronavirus: Data and Scientific Analysis”, said strategies are likely to have a limited effect, at least on the infection rate.

“I think we are likely to see the overall infection rate rise as high as the levels we have seen in the past,” Luchetta told Xinhua. “But because more people are getting vaccinated and because medical procedures and therapies have improved so much, the coming wave will not be so deadly and we will not see so many people in intensive care units.”

Luchetta predicted most countries will hold off on widespread quarantines like the ones that shut down European economies last year unless healthcare systems again become overwhelmed.

“If the number of serious cases remains manageable, I think governments can avoid taking drastic measures involving lockdowns,” he said.

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