Coronavirus cases in Europe are “almost back” to the amount seen in March when infection rates first peaked, scientists have warned as concerns grow over a possible second wave.
Countries across the continent are easing lockdowns and reopening restaurants, retail stores, and offices in an attempt to kick-start their economies. But the relief of restrictions has seen a surge in infections that puts Europe during a vulnerable position.
“The virus hasn’t been sleeping over the summer, so it didn’t take a vacation which are some things that we see now,” Andrea Ammon, the director of the ECU Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said on Wednesday during a debate held by the ECU Union.
She said the increase in reported infection rates had been slower than in March when countries like Italy and Spain were hit particularly hard by Covid-19 but had now been increasing for weeks.
However, deaths in Europe are down from a seven-day rolling average of about 4,000 in early April to around 300 at the beginning of September, consistent with CNN analysis of figures from Johns Hopkins University.
“We have seen now this week that the notification rate in the EU and EEA [European Economic Area] countries and the UK is now 46 per 100,000,” Ammon said. “You may remember that at one point we’ve been already below 15, so there are the rise and this increase we’ve been seeing now for quite five weeks … We are almost back to the numbers that we’ve seen in March.”
In mid-August, the ECDC said that new infection clusters appeared to be tied to younger people that we’re venturing out into bars, restaurants, and other public places.
Ammon said Wednesday that the resurgence was now also being seen among older demographics. “In August … we are seeing more that also [an] older population is affected, indicating that it’s really a real increase in transmission,” she said.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, told CNN that while initial lockdowns had helped to slow the rapidly escalating epidemic and convey case numbers down, “it was simply pushing the matter a couple of months down the road .”
“Now we’re facing the matter we had in March, that the virus is out there, it’s the potential to cause a serious epidemic even as it did in March; in that respect, we’re no further forward in the least, we simply delayed everything,” he said.
Woolhouse said it had been important to take care when comparing case numbers because most countries now have far greater testing capacity than in March, but he noted that the proportion of tests coming back positive is also starting to increase. “Out of all the indications … that is the one that catches my eye,” he said.
“It comes back to the present crucial R number [reproduction number, which indicates the spread of the virus], of whether it’s above one or below one, but within the early stages of the first wave, it was near three. And I simply cannot see it being allowed to urge anywhere close back thereto,” Woolhouse added.