This week may mark a turning point in Europe: several countries have seemed to more openly assume a strategy of “letting go” of the epidemic, and living with the coronavirus.
With an average of 180,000 cases per day, the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, thus declared on Monday that it was perhaps time to consider the epidemic as an “endemic disease”, in particular by ceasing to count cases and daily deaths. The Netherlands decided to lift certain restrictive measures on Friday, despite a sharp increase in the number of cases, when they had opted for containment in December in the midst of an epidemic decline.
In France, while the measures have not been tightened, resuscitation has been falling for two consecutive days, a first for months, while hospitalizations are beginning to stagnate. And in the United Kingdom, where the government refused to resort to new measures in December and bet everything on vaccination, the peak of cases has already passed, and hospitalizations are on a high plateau but are no longer increasing.
This strategic shift can be explained in one word: Omicron. Much more contagious than Delta, itself already feared for its high transmissibility, the variant landed in Europe in mid-December should, according to the World Health Organization, have infected 50% of Europeans by the end of February. Given its extreme contagiousness, “it quickly became apparent that the classic measures to curb it, such as the curfew or the closure of closed places, no longer carry the weight”, indicates Anne Sénequier, doctor and co-director of the Observatory. of global health.
Only containment could possibly stop Omicron, but the Netherlands is a good example that this option may prove to be insufficient, while this kind of very strict measures is less and less well accepted. “After two years of pandemic, the populations are tested and the only health cannot be taken into account”, adds the doctor.
This desire to let go is also due to the fact that Omicron appears to be much less dangerous than the previous variants. “What we are seeing in Europe is a very high incidence rate without a major increase in deaths. There is a strong decorrelation between cases and hospitalizations, and an even stronger decorrelation between cases and resuscitations and deaths”, notes Emilie Ferrat, general practitioner.
An American study conducted on more than 70,000 individuals shows that people infected with Omicron were half as likely to be hospitalized as those infected with Delta. The risk of being placed in intensive care was reduced by around 75%, and that of dying by more than 90%. This is independent of the immunity conferred by vaccination or a previous infection.
And precisely, if Europe can consider a “letting go”, it is also thanks to its very high vaccination rate. 85.1% of the Spaniards, 77.4% of the British, 76.5% of the Dutch and 79.2% of the French have received at least one dose of vaccine, to take up the countries mentioned above. “With such a case/death ratio, in particular thanks to the vaccine, it is possible to move towards an endemic disease, which comes back every year but with rates that can be contained and controlled thanks to a few public health measures”, hopes the generalist.
But, before achieving this result and the coronavirus finally becoming the flu or the simple cold hoped for since the start of the pandemic, there is still a long way to go, warns Anne Sénequier: “Europe is under the illusion of “living with “the virus, but for the moment, we are not living with it, we are suffering from it”. The objective is indeed that the major part of the population has the same life, with or without an epidemic peak. And life is much more unpleasant in this month of January for parents of students, for example, than last September.
For this, progress remains to be made. “We need a more effective vaccine against transmission and with a longer duration of effectiveness”, hopes the co-director of the Global Health Observatory: “Current vaccines have helped us enormously, but that does not mean that we must be content with it”. All the more so when many fragile people are still unvaccinated, which saturates intensive care beds and considerably increases deaths. “Ultimately, the epidemic should be managed in a much more targeted way, particularly in terms of vaccination. Make reminders only for fragile people, but by going to them in order to vaccinate them all”, wishes Emilie Ferrat, who finds it hard to imagine recall campaigns for the whole population being maintained over the years, due to a cost/ benefit less and less obvious.
Still, this happy scenario is not won, the health crisis having taught us to be wary of overly optimistic forecasts. New variant, immune escape, difficulty of vaccine recall are all hypotheses that call for caution. A good reason especially for Europe to look at something other than its navel. “To minimize the risks, it will be necessary to vaccinate the entire world population, which was far from being done in 2021”, concludes Anne Sénequier. Currently, 59.5% of the globe has received a first dose. For Europe to be able to live with the virus, we must offer the possibility to the whole planet to do the same.