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

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

ALAIN JOCARD | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON – As coronavirus vaccines continue to roll out in major economies around the world, attention is again turning to current lockdown strategies to eradicate new cases of the virus.

Some experts have called for a “zero-covid” strategy that advocates very strict lockdowns, social restrictions and travel bans to eradicate all cases of the virus before public and business life can be reopened.

Countries like New Zealand and Australia have adopted this approach, closing their countries early in the pandemic to prevent new cases. Citing their success in containing the pandemic, some experts in Ireland are also advocating a “zero-covid” approach, although given Northern Ireland’s open border with the rest of the UK, there is disagreement on whether such a policy would work there

On Thursday, World Health Organization experts said it was too early and difficult in practice to consider a “zero-covid” approach.

“Elimination is basically something we want for every disease, for every pathogen, and it can be a very powerful incentive to work. But whether we’re at the stage now – setting goals for a zero-covid strategy – is still open another ball game, “said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, at a press conference on Thursday.

“First and foremost, we need to see how people’s behavior, how they adhere to non-pharmaceutical interventions, adds up to the timing of policy decisions when vaccination is introduced, and how the pandemic is brought under control.”

Zero Covid strategies were based on banning inbound 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 the lockdown. Forced hotel quarantines for travelers to the UK are now on the horizon, despite critics saying the move is too little and too late.

The introduction of vaccinations is creating a silver lining for lockdowns and, along with restrictions on public life, has slowly seen a decline in new cases and hospital admissions.

Kluge said the European region, which includes 53 countries for WHO, has seen a decrease in new cases in the past four weeks and deaths in the past fourteen days. Still, more than 1 million cases have been reported in the European region every week, Kluge said, and the spread of new variants remains a major problem.

Vaccine manufacturers are already working on second generation footage to target variants of the virus. Concern and caution about mutations are causing governments to be on the alert when it comes to lifting bans.

On the one hand, Germany extended its lockdown until the beginning of March amid concerns about the spread of a variant first discovered in Great Britain. With this variant, which according to the WHO has now been reported in more than 80 countries, a leading British scientist said it was on the right track, “most likely to sweep the world”.

Unlocking “must be gradual and safe,” said Kluge, adding, “the biggest mistake is lowering our guard (too early).”

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

“This virus is going to take every chance we give it to spread quickly, and it’s going to spread much faster than we think. … Every time we lift a restriction, every time we do, it will open a part of our society that balance towards the favor of the virus. “

She warned that transmission rates would remain high and that lowering the transmission rates would aid vaccination programs.

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