LONDON — Europe is slipping behind in its vaccination drive and could see hundreds of thousands more deaths by next spring, the World Health Organization has said.
“We’ve only got 54% of the one billion people living in Europe fully vaccinated,” Robb Butler, executive director for WHO Europe, told CNBC Wednesday.
This region for the U.N. health agency comprises of 53 countries that actually spans Europe and Central Asia and has approximately 900,000 citizens at its last count.
“There are [around] 45% who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, that’s a bigger issue for our policy and decision-makers right now — driving up vaccination rates,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Wednesday.
Butler’s comments come as Europe struggles with the latest wave of Covid infections, prompting further restrictive measures and pushing hospitalizations higher.
Most, if not all of those who were admitted to intensive care units for Covid have not been vaccinated. This is according to health officials in the region. Although Covid vaccines can’t stop the spread of the virus, they significantly reduce the chance of serious infection, hospitalization, and death.
WHO Europe’s large proportion of unvaccinated people puts it at risk of excess deaths in the months to come, the WHO warned on Tuesday, issuing a statement in which is said that the Covid death toll in Europe and Central Asia could rise by 700,000 to reach more than 2.2 million by next March.
The Europe branch of WHO stated that 1.5 million Covid deaths have already been recorded. The virus is now the leading cause for death in Europe and Central Asia.
The region is currently experiencing nearly 4,200 deaths per day, twice the daily deaths recorded at the end of September, the statement noted.
WHO repeatedly stated that Europe is the epicenter for the most recent global Covid infection wave. The rates of vaccination, including booster shots and the initial Covid vaccine, vary widely from one country to another.
Germany is mulling tighter Covid restrictions that could include lockdown measures with a decision expected on Wednesday. As the number of infections rises, Spain is increasing its controls. Austria has chosen to lock down completely, while the Netherlands chose to have a partial lockdown.
Austria is, so far, the only country in Europe that will make Covid vaccines compulsory from February next year, although there have been calls in other countries for mandating vaccines.
WHO’s Butler stated that the health agency does not have a position regarding mandates, but that they are a delicate matter.
” It polarizes, it risks marginalizing [people], and it can be at the cost of trust and social inclusion. It’s not a good last-resort option and is delicate. History has taught us that vaccines can cause trust erosion and polarization.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday called for the deployment of booster shots and said other preventive measures must be embraced to keep infection numbers down.
“Further measures are necessary to prevent or slow the spread of the virus. This means that social distancing, wearing masks, and following hygiene rules are all important. These are all equally important. It is becoming increasingly difficult for many of us, and we should not forget that. In the EU, 1,600 people die every day of Covid, 1,600 people, day after day,” she noted.
“Therefore, vaccination and hygiene measures are an act of solidarity, and they save lives,” she added.
–CNBC’s Robert Towey contributed reporting to this story.
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