Europe saw a five-fold increase in excess fatalities amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 from the year before, the World Health Organization’s European region chief said Thursday.

Presenting the regional picture for countries in the European region in 2020, Hans Kluge said over 26 million confirmed cases and over 580,000 confirmed deaths related to the disease had been reported last year.

“One year from WHO’s first news report about this virus, we have new tools at our disposal and considerably more knowledge.

“But we remain in the grip of COVID-19 as cases surge across Europe, and we tackle new challenges brought by the mutating virus,” said Kluge.

Close to 313,000 excess deaths were reported in 2020 across the region, which stretches from the Arctic to the Russian Far East.

The number marks a three-fold increase in excess deaths recorded in 2018 and close to a fivefold compared to 2019.

Entering 2021, more than 230 million people in the European region are living in countries under full national lockdown, with more countries set to announce lockdown measures in the coming week, said Kluge.

“This moment represents a tipping point in the course of the pandemic; where science, politics, technology, and values must form a united front to push back this persistent and elusive virus,” said the WHO official.

Urging intensified public health and social measures to flatten the steep vertical line in some countries, he said:”It’s the basic measures with which we are all familiar that need to be identified to bring down the strain over COVID-19 and to save lives.

“Adhering to generalized mask-wearing, limiting social gathering numbers, physical distancing and hand washing, coupled with adequate testing and tracing systems, proper support for current time and isolation and increasing the vaccination will work if we all get involved.”

“Given the limited supply of vaccines, and the increasing burden on our health systems, prioritization of vaccination of our health workforce, at the most at risk in our communities is vital,” added Kluge.

He also noted that 22 countries in the WHO European region had detected the new variants.

Catherine Smallwood, the senior emergency officer for WHO Europe, was asked if a new variant from the UK and one that emerged in South Africa would resist vaccines.

“There’s probably quite promising evidence that the vaccine will work,” she said, adding that there was no evidence for any of the variants that have emerged, that there would be “any decrease in the effectiveness of the vaccine,” repeating what other WHO scientists have said.

She explained that studies are still ongoing.

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