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How should Europe deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? What strategies should be implemented and what risks should be taken into account?

Two opposing strategies

As the spring wave of infections subsided, many countries relaxed or lifted restrictions altogether.

But during the summer, the delta variant of coronavirus emerged and spread, and the incidence increased again. This is because the delta variant is more infectious and partially evades the immune response.

As the researchers write: "Europe needs a coherent and effective strategy before schools reopen and coronavirus increases activity due to its seasonality" (SARS-CoV-2, according to last year's experience, is largely a seasonal virus - it spreads much more easily in autumn and winter).

The researchers note that two opposing strategies are possible:

  1. Continuing the rapid lifting of all restrictions. In this strategy, we are counting on the fact that the level of vaccination and immunity acquired through natural infection is already high enough that, despite the increase in new infections, health care systems will not be overburdened.
  2. Lifting the restrictions more slowly, depending on progress in vaccination and keeping infection rates low. This strategy is to control the pandemic with testing programs, detecting the infected and their contacts, and effectively isolating them.

Which strategy is better?

The first strategy may seem the simplest to adopt. But it is risky because of insufficient vaccination coverage, low adolescent immunization rates, and doubts about vaccinating children.

It could bring a wave of infections of several hundred cases per million people per day, scientists warn.

They present model calculations which show that in some countries this can again lead to a burden on hospitals and intensive care units.

The second strategy would be an attempt to control the pandemic, keeping the coronavirus in check with existing restrictions (masks, social distance, remote or hybrid work, etc.) and mass testing, isolation and quarantine. If done effectively, the incidence would stay well below one hundred per million people per day.

The researchers note in The Lancet that the application of these two different strategies is already causing friction within the European community and threatening European cooperation at economic and social level.

- A high incidence of the disease in one country threatens a low incidence in a neighbouring country, which is why some countries have introduced obligatory tests and quarantine - explains Ewa Szczurek, Ph.D.

What do the researchers recommend?

According to the scientists, it is necessary to coordinate the fight against a pandemic in all EU countries.

In doing so, they recommend a second strategy, which is to keep infection rates low until a large enough fraction of the population has been vaccinated.

Its benefits include:

  • fewer deaths, fewer illnesses and cases of the so-called long COVID,
  • greater solidarity, i.e. protection from infection of those who are not yet protected,
  • less risk of the emergence and spread of new virus variants,
  • the possibility of opening schools and kindergartens in the autumn and winter season.

"Keeping infection rates low is an act of solidarity and will be made increasingly easier by increasing vaccination coverage," the researchers emphasise. They add that for this strategy to be effective, people need to be aware of the risks, consciously follow the restrictions, and have confidence in the authorities, who should have a consistent and clear information policy.

* The team that prepared the analysis includes researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, the Minerva Foundation Institute for Medical Research in Helsinki, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Medical University of Innsbruck, as well as the universities of Warsaw, Vienna, Luxembourg, Munich, Malta, Cretan, Maribor, Latvia, Athens, Antwerp, Aachen, Bergen, Porto, Linköping, Umeå, Maastricht and Edinburgh.

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And once the pandemic is over, how do we assess the impact and damage? How do we develop a plan of action? As part of the 'Periscope' project, the best scientists and experts from 32 European universities, research institutes and think tanks are engaged in this task. "Gazeta Wyborcza" is the only media outlet cooperating with them. The "Periscope" project is financed by the European Commission as part of the "Horizon2020" programme.

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Translated by Chris Borowski

This is a translation of the article from August 24, 2021.

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