Europe Lifts Vaccine Suspension as Virus Surge Brings New Lockdowns
Europe Lifts Vaccine Suspension as Virus Surge Brings New Lockdowns
Governments across Europe raced on Friday to lift suspensions on the AstraZeneca vaccine and reassure an exhausted and anxious public that it was safe amid a new wave of infections that led many countries to reimpose harsh restrictions on movement and businesses.
German officials warned that plans to ease restrictions by Easter would have to be put on hold and said that more measures might be needed in the weeks ahead. Paris was one of many cities across France where people were essentially ordered to stay at home. Italy entered its third national lockdown on Monday, and Poland will put in place its own lockdown on Saturday.
The rapid moves to tighten what were already relatively stringent restrictions came as nearly every country in Europe that had halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine — including France, Germany Italy and Spain — said they would start using it again.
But the brief halt in the use of the vaccine underscored the slow pace of mass inoculation campaigns, which led officials to warn that the only way to control the virus was to impose restrictions.
One year into the pandemic, the dark routine is by now exasperatingly familiar in Europe.
Cases of infection begin to spike. Restrictions are tightened and society grinds to a halt, but by the time people are once again essentially confined to their homes, hospitals are filled. Death follows.
Across all of Europe, the official death toll surged past 900,000 last week, according to the World Health Organization. But this spring, it was supposed to be different.
Vaccines are rolling out, albeit at a halting pace. They are effective. They can stop serious illness and death. And for the vast majority of people in Europe, and around the world, they are agonizingly out of reach.
The new wave is a stark reminder that not enough people have been inoculated to seriously blunt the impact of a new wave of infection spreading across the continent, so governments are once again being forced to tighten already difficult restrictions on businesses and social interactions.
The picture is made even bleaker by the fact that the United States and Britain have administered three times more vaccines per 100 people than countries in the European Union — meaning that it is likely to be months rather than weeks before enough people will be inoculated for vaccines to turn the tide of the pandemic.
“There are not yet enough vaccine doses in Europe to stop the third wave by vaccination alone,” Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said on Friday. “Even if the deliveries from E.U. orders come reliably, it will still take a few weeks until the risk groups are fully vaccinated.”
The mass vaccination efforts across the European Union were thrown into deeper turmoil this week as more than a dozen countries suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine while reports of a possible link to rare side effects involving blood clots were investigated.
On Thursday, the bloc’s medical regulator, the European Medicines Agency, said that its review came to the firm conclusion that the vaccine was “safe and effective.”
Political leaders rushed to try and undo any damage to the public’s trust and faith in AstraZeneca and vaccines more broadly — with a number of them rolling up their sleeves and getting the shots themselves to drive the point home.
In France, where vaccine skepticism runs deep, Prime Minister Jean Castex was scheduled to be vaccinated on Friday.
Lithuania also resumed using AstraZeneca vaccines on Friday, and the nation’s president, prime minister and health minister were set to get shots on Monday.
While faith in AstraZeneca remains high in Britain, where the vaccine was developed in partnership with researchers at Oxford University, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to get a shot on Friday as he sought to ease the minds of millions in the country who had already received it.
But the challenge for leaders across much of Europe is much deeper than restoring faith in one vaccine. They must now find a way to deliver more vaccines to the people that need them most at a time when the virus is once again claiming some 2,000 lives a day.
“The number of people dying from Covid-19 in Europe is higher now than it was this time last year,” said Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s European director. “It is in Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States where case incidence, hospitalizations and deaths are now among the highest in the world.”
Infections are rising across the continent.
France reported nearly 40,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, according to a New York Times database — the highest number since November, when a second wave of infection forced the entire country into lockdown.
On Friday, the authorities ordered the lockdown of Paris once again, one of many regions in the country where a weary public was told the now familiar refrain: The situation is getting worse and desperate action must be taken to keep it from deteriorating even further.
Last week, health officials in Paris ordered hospitals to cancel many of their procedures to make room for Covid-19 patients. And this week some patients were transferred to other regions to ease the pressure on hospitals.
Businesses considered nonessential are being forced to close, outdoor activities are limited to within a six-mile radius of a person’s home, and travel to other regions is banned. Schools will remain open, but everything else basically must stop.
With less than 10 percent of the population having received even one dose of vaccine, Bruno Riou, the head of the crisis center for Paris public hospitals, said a lockdown was the only remaining option.
“I hear a lot of people saying that a week without a lockdown is a week that’s gained,” Mr. Riou said. “For me, it’s a week that’s lost.”
Across Europe more broadly, promises to ease restrictions by Easter are now being reversed. In Germany, where cases are rising rapidly, officials warned of “difficult weeks ahead.”
“The rising case numbers may mean that we are unable to take any further steps toward opening up in the weeks to come,” Mr. Spahn told reporters on Friday. “On the contrary, we may even have to take steps backward.”
Thomas Hale, an associate professor of public policy at Oxford University who leads a research group tracking coronavirus restrictions around the world, said it was remarkable how similar the pattern playing out across Europe in recent days was to the situation a year ago.
“A big question is whether people will do again in spring 2021 what they did in spring 2020,” he said.
Constant Méheut and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.