The World Health Organization’s Europe chief said Thursday the region accounts for 28% of COVID-19 cases with signs of overwhelmed health systems, noting that if masks’ use reached 95% rather than the current 60%, lockdowns would not be needed.

Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said that intensive care units (ICUs) are currently at 95% capacity in France and full capacity in Switzerland, noting that current vaccine developments offer the world some hope.

“While vaccines won’t stop COVID-19 entirely and don’t answer all our questions, they do represent a great hope in the war against this virus,” Kluge said at a virtual news conference.

“In the last few days, we have received good news with two particularly promising vaccines. However, this promise will never be realized unless we ensure all countries have access to the vaccine market that is delivered equally, that it is effectively deployed, and countries address pockets of vaccine hesitancy,” said Kluge.

About the Russian-developed vaccine called Sputnik that is being sent to other countries, including Hungary, Kluge said he visited Russia recently and met the prime minister and the health minister.

Ultimately, the country’s vaccine and drug regulator will have to approve the authorization of a vaccine for the country, and “this is in process for the time being”. He added: “And of course, there is no vaccine, which can bypass the essential safety and effectiveness criteria.”

Europe, US epicenters of pandemic

Europe and the United States are the epicenters of the global coronavirus pandemic, with Europe accounting for 26% of deaths. “In the past two weeks, COVID-19 deaths have increased by 18%,” Kluge said.

“Last week, Europe registered over 29,000 new COVID-19 deaths, that is one person dying every 17 seconds in the European region.”

He said an average of 4,500 lives are lost to COVID-19 in Europe each day, but “this is avoidable,” and if the most privileged make an extra effort, they can make an impact.

New weekly cases of COVID-19 decreased from over 2 million the week before to approximately 1.8 million cases last week. “It’s a small signal, but it’s a signal nevertheless,” said Kluge.

“If mask use reached 95%, lockdowns would not be needed. But at the current 60% or lower mask-use, it is hard to avoid lockdowns,” said Kluge while acknowledging that hundreds of millions of people are in a lockdown of some sort today.

“The WHO had learned that there is significant collateral damage associated with lockdowns. These include increased mental health issues, alcohol and substance abuse, gender-based violence, essential health service disruption and a need for improved economic support for the people affected, including those people who lose their jobs,” said the WHO regional chief.

Kluge said Europe had also been able to ensure safe learning for its children by keeping the vast majority of schools open for almost 100 consecutive days.

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