A resurgent Covid-19 means another tough winter could be coming

With Covid-19 deaths at record levels in Russia, Moscow is headed for a lockdown this month. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Restaurants and hair salons are shut. Schooling is remote. People are stuck at home after 8pm. At least one country in Europe has already returned to full-on crisis mode as Covid-19 flares anew from the UK to Russia to Singapore.

Latvia's response is the most extreme, but the Baltic nation isn't alone in grappling with a coronavirus surge reminiscent of 2020. Britain, which inoculated residents early and dropped most Covid-19 curbs, is now seeing the most cases since July. In Germany, they're at the highest since May.

In countries where vaccination rates are lagging behind, the situation is worse. With Covid-19 deaths at record levels in Russia, Moscow is headed for a lockdown this month. Romania has run out of intensive-care beds.

The highly contagious Delta variant is also sparking flare-ups in China and Australia, nations which have pursued a zero-tolerance policy against the virus. In the US, where severe summer outbreaks have mostly receded, the government is broadening access to booster shots to try to forestall another wave.

With winter coming in the Northern Hemisphere, the pandemic isn't going anywhere, belying hopes that vaccines would provide a speedy path out of the crisis. And while the shots have proven to be effective in reducing severe illness and death, they don't always stop infection or transmission and their potency diminishes over time, making the picture in some ways more complicated than it was a year ago.

"The expected colder temperatures, the waning vaccine efficacy and the gaps in the immunisation coverage make it difficult to predict the epidemic's evolution," said Dr Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist at Institut Pasteur who advises the French government. "The next three to six weeks will be key."

No two countries are the same, but some things are clear: those that vaccinated early, like Israel, the US and the UK, are first in line to experience the shots' waning effectiveness.

Those that keep additional public-health guardrails in place - whether they be masks, immunity passports or limits on gatherings - appear to do better. And those whose citizens have refused vaccines fare the worst of all.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted most Covid-related curbs on July 19, making Britain a test case for relying on shots in the absence of other measures. That's backfired in the case of young teens, for whom a slow vaccine roll-out led to an explosion of infections in English secondary schools. Under criticism, the government moved this week to broaden access to shots for those aged 12 to 15.

Like in the US, the UK government is also pushing senior citizens and other vulnerable people to get booster shots. Some scientists say that's not enough. They're urging Mr Johnson to reinstate a mandate for masks in crowded spaces, require vaccine passports for large events and advise more work from home.

"We don't have to see those surges," Dr Bruce Aylward, senior adviser at the World Health Organisation, said at a press briefing on Thursday (Oct 21). "The vaccines are an important part of it, but the vaccines are only part of the issue - like social distancing, masking."

On the other extreme, Australia, where the Delta variant's arrival coincided with winter in June, has struggled to stick to a policy of keeping the virus out entirely. Despite lockdowns that have run longer than anywhere else in the world, the country now accepts Covid-19 is here to stay and is adjusting to a steady drumbeat of cases, as is New Zealand.

Singapore elected to start reopening and to shift from targeting zero cases once its vaccination rate topped 80 per cent. But infections started climbing soon after some curbs were eased in August. The city-state this week decided to keep virus restrictions in place for another month and warned the current wave could challenge its health-care system.

In the US, with more than 40 per cent of the population not fully vaccinated, there's little reason to suggest the country will be immune to what's happening in the UK and elsewhere as winter drags on. To help bolster the nation's defences and head off another virus surge, the US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday cleared booster shots from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Vaccine passes

In Europe, the likes of Italy, Germany and France have tried to walk the middle path, relying on a mix of vaccine passes, masks and testing regimes to underpin their inoculation drives and avoid more lockdowns. The idea is spreading, with Bulgaria, the least vaccinated country in the European Union, imposing its own pass this week.

In Italy, where a pass is required to enter restaurants, theatres and gyms, Prime Minister Mario Draghi has spoken critically of Britain's more lax approach, saying the country had "abandoned all caution" and was now facing the consequences.

Europe's strategy is "an experiment", Dr Marion Koopmans, who heads Erasmus University Medical Centre's department of viroscience, said on the sidelines of a conference last month. Some unknowns could still come into play, including the potential for a wave of combined Covid-19 and flu infections, she said.

In Germany, businesses are increasingly being given the option of serving only those who've been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19. Berlin's famed techno club Berghain was among those to do so - and still, at least 19 people were infected at a party there in early October, Berliner Morgenpost newspaper reported. The cases were mild, but some 3,300 potential close contacts of the infected people were informed by email, the paper said.

Winter test

Trends in the UK and other highly vaccinated countries where curbs have been dropped and people are socialising indoors show how effective the shots are at keeping people alive and out of the hospital, Dr Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's health emergencies program, said at a press briefing. That will be put to the test this winter.

"The reality is that in a situation where there's intense social mixing in the winter period with people inside, we're going to see further transmission of the virus," Dr Ryan said.

In Latvia, where about half the population remains unvaccinated, officials find themselves in the awkward position of expressing regret for the stringent curbs they're imposing on those who are immunised.

"I have to apologise to all the vaccinated that up to now all our efforts haven't been enough," Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said on Monday. "It's unfair that we have to carry this burden because other people haven't been vaccinated, but if we don't then we will also suffer."

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