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Total COVID deaths in Europe could exceed 2.2 million by March - WHO

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A health worker stands near an ambulance carring a COVID-19 patient, as they wait in the queue at a hospital for people infected with the coronavirus disease in Kyiv, Ukraine. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday (23 November) a further 700,000 people could die from COVID-19 in Europe by March, taking the total to above 2.2 million, as it urged people to get vaccinated and to have booster shots, writes Emma Farge.

Total cumulative deaths from the respiratory disease in the 53 countries of the WHO's European region have already surpassed 1.5 million, it said, with the daily rate doubling from late September to 4,200 a day.

The WHO's European region also includes Russia and other former Soviet republics as well as Turkey.

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"Cumulative reported deaths are projected to reach over 2.2 million by spring next year, based on current trends," it said, adding that COVID-19 is now the top regional cause of death.

High or extreme stress on intensive care units (ICU) is expected in 49 out of 53 countries by March 1, the WHO added.

France, Spain and Hungary were among those countries expected to experience extreme stress in ICU usage in early 2022, according to the data cited by the WHO Europe.

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The Netherlands started transporting COVID-19 patients across the border to Germany on Tuesday as pressure rises on hospitals and infections jump to record levels. Austria began its fourth lockdown on Monday (22 November). Read more.

The WHO said a high number of unvaccinated people as well as "reduced vaccine-induced protection" were among the factors stoking high transmission in Europe alongside the dominance of the Delta variant and the relaxation of hygiene measures.

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge urged people to get vaccinated and also to get a booster dose "if offered".

WHO officials in the Geneva headquarters have previously advised against COVID-19 vaccine boosters until more people around the world have received primary doses. WHO officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether this represented a change in official guidance.

"All of us have the opportunity and responsibility to help avert unnecessary tragedy and loss of life, and limit further disruption to society and businesses over this winter season," said Kluge.

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First suspected case of Omicron variant of COVID-19 detected in Switzerland

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The first probable case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Switzerland, the government said late on Sunday (28 November), as the country tightened its entry restrictions to check its spread, writes John Revill, Reuters.

The case relates to a person who returned to Switzerland from South Africa around a week ago, the Federal Office for Public Health said on Twitter.

Testing will clarify the situation in the coming days, it added.

Switzerland has ordered that travellers from 19 countries must present a negative test when boarding a fight to the country, and must go into quarantine for 10 days on arrival.

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The list includes Australia, Denmark, Britain, Czech Republic, South Africa and Israel.

Swiss voters on Sunday backed the government's pandemic response plan by a bigger than expected majority in a referendum, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases. Read more.

Some 62.01% voted in favour of a law passed earlier this year to provide financial aid to people hit by the COVID-19 crisis and laying the foundation for certificates giving proof of COVID-19 vaccination, recovery or a negative test. These are currently required to enter bars, restaurants and certain events.

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Biden warns against Omicron panic, pledges no new lockdowns

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US President Joe Biden (pictured) urged Americans on Monday (29 November) not to panic about the new COVID-19 Omicron variant and said the United States was working with pharmaceutical companies to make contingency plans if new vaccines were needed, write Susan Heavey, Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason.

Biden said the country would not go back to lockdowns to stop the spread of Omicron, and he would lay out his strategy on Thursday (2 December) for combating the pandemic over the winter. He urged people to get vaccinated, get boosters and wear masks. Read more.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said in remarks at the White House following a meeting with his COVID-19 team.

"We're going to fight and beat this new variant," he said.

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Biden said it was inevitable that Omicron cases, which were first detected in southern Africa, would emerge in the United States. He said officials were still studying Omicron but believed that existing vaccines would continue to protect against severe disease. Read more.

Biden said his administration was working with vaccine makers Pfizer (PFE.N), Moderna (MRNA.O) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) to develop contingency plans.

Travellers wait to process through a security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before the Thanksgiving holiday in Seattle, Washington, U.S. November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
Dr. Anthony Fauci listens as U.S. President Joe Biden delivers an update on the Omicron variant at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque     

"In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool," he said.

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Biden said he would direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to "use the fastest process available without cutting any corners for safety to get such vaccines approved and on the market if needed."

A U.S. travel ban took effect earlier on Monday blocking most visitors from eight southern African nations from entering the country. Earlier flights from South Africa to the U.S. did not screen passengers after the variant was found. Read more.

Biden said the travel restrictions were put in place to give the country time to get more people vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy in the United States and around the world has thwarted public health officials' efforts to get the pandemic under control.

Just 59% of all Americans are fully vaccinated, although almost 70% now have at least one dose. Nearly 782,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to a Reuters tally.

Much of the United States shut down in early 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, but economic activity and jobs have bounced back in recent months. Face masks and vaccine mandates are opposed by some Republican politicians, even as health experts tout their effectiveness. Read more.

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Commission hosts second matchmaking event to speed up the development and production of COVID-19 medicines

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Today (30 November), the Commission is hosting a pan-European matchmaking event to accelerate and upscale the development and production of COVID-19 medicines in Europe, as part of the actions under the EU Strategy on COVID-19 Therapeutics. Following a first matchmaking event on COVID-19 medicines in July 2021 and a previous matchmaking event on COVID-19 vaccines in March 2021, this event aims at strengthening the participation of EU companies in value chains for COVID-19 therapeutics and speeding up connections among the participants. It also broadens the focus: from therapeutics specifically used to treat COVID-19, to also including those used to treat the symptoms of COVID-19, as well the production of disposable materials, such as syringes, and ingredients needed for making such medicines.

The event gathers companies from the European Economic Area as well as other businesses and organisations included in the portfolio of 10 most promising treatments, presented by the Commission in the follow-up to the COVID-19 Therapeutics strategy. In order to facilitate matchmaking events, the Commission issued a comfort letter in March 2021 (based on the Antitrust Temporary Framework adopted by the Commission on 8 April 2020) providing guidance, relevant also for this event, on how the matchmaking and exchanges between participating companies, including direct competitors, can take place in compliance with EU competition rules. The matchmaking event is organised by the Commission's Task Force for industrial scale-up of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, in close co-operation with the European Cluster Collaboration Platform. The event is also hosted in partnership with the Council of European BioRegions (CEBR) and the European Cluster Alliance (ECA), which are supporting the Commission in running an EU survey to assess EU capacities for COVID-19 therapeutics production. More information about the event is available here.

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