‘Zero Covid’? We’re not at that stage yet, WHO says

A nurse prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, at a vaccination center, in Sarcelles near Paris on January 10, 2021.

ALAIN JOCARD | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — As coronavirus vaccines continue to be rolled out in major economies around the world, attention is again turning to current lockdown strategies in a bid to eliminate any new cases of the virus.

Some experts have called for a “zero-Covid” strategy, advocating for very strict lockdowns, social restrictions and travel bans in a bid to eradicate all cases of the virus before the reopening of public and business life again.

Countries like New Zealand and Australia opted for this approach, shuttering their countries early on in the pandemic to prevent new cases. Citing their success in halting the pandemic, some experts in Ireland also advocate a “zero-Covid” approach, although there is dissent over whether such a policy would work there, given Northern Ireland’s open border with the rest of the U.K.

On Thursday, experts from the World Health Organization said it was too early, and tricky in practice, for Europe to consider a “zero-Covid” approach.

“Elimination is something we want, in principle, for any disease, for any pathogen, and it can be a very powerful working incentive. But whether we are at the stage now — to put targets for a ‘zero Covid’ strategy — is still a different ballgame,” Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, told a press briefing Thursday.

“What we need to do first and foremost is to see how the behavior of the people, how them adhering to the nonpharmaceutical interventions, add up with the timing of political decisions with the vaccination rollout, and how it will bring the pandemic under control.”

Zero Covid strategies have relied on banning incoming travel but some countries were easier to restrict or “isolate from international travel” than others, Kluge said. Many countries in Europe have banned all but essential travel during lockdown. Enforced hotel quarantines for travelers to the U.K. are now in the cards although critics say the move is too little, too late.

A silver lining to lockdowns is being provided by vaccination rollouts and, paired with restrictions on public life, a decline in new cases and hospital admissions is slowly being seen.

Kluge said that the European region, which for the WHO comprises 53 countries, was seeing a decline in new cases over the last four weeks, and deaths over the last fortnight. Still, more than 1 million cases were being reported every week in the European region, Kluge said, and the spread of new variants remains a big concern.

Vaccine makers are already working on second-generation shots to target variants of the virus. Concern and caution over mutations are prompting governments to be on their guard when it comes to lifting lockdowns.

For one, Germany has extended its lockdown into early March against a backdrop of concern over the spread of a variant first discovered in the U.K. With that variant now reported in more than 80 countries, according to the WHO, one leading British scientist said that it was on course “to sweep the world, in all probability.”

Lifting lockdowns “has to be done gradually and safely,” Kluge said, adding “the biggest mistake is to lower our guard (too early).”

Dr. Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer on the WHO’s Europe team, said the virus would take advantage of easing restrictions too early.

“This virus will take advantage of any chance we give it to rapidly spread, and it will spread much more rapidly than we think. … Every time we lift a restriction, every time we open a part of our society it will shift the balance towards the virus’ favor.”

She warned that transmission rates remained high and that bringing these down would support vaccination programs.

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