BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - Coronavirus infections broke records in parts of Europe on Wednesday (Nov 24), with the continent once again the epicentre of a pandemic that has prompted new curbs on movement and made health experts rethink booster vaccination shots.
Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary all reported new highs in daily infections as winter grips Europe and people gather indoors in the run-up to Christmas, providing a perfect breeding ground for Covid-19.
The disease has swept the world in the two years since it was first detected in central China, infecting more than 258 million people and killing 5.4 million.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European Union public health agency, recommended vaccine boosters for all adults, with priority for those over 40, in a major shift from its previous guidance which suggested the extra doses should be considered for older frail people and those with weakened immune systems.
"Available evidence emerging from Israel and the United Kingdom shows a significant increase in protection against infection and severe disease following a booster dose in all age groups in the short term," said the ECDC in a report published on Wednesday.
Many EU countries have already begun giving booster doses to their populations, but are using different criteria to make priorities and different intervals between the first shots and boosters.
ECDC head Andrea Ammon said booster shots would increase protection against infection caused by waning immunity and "could potentially reduce the transmission in the population and prevent additional hospitalisations and deaths".
She advised countries with low levels of vaccination to speed up their roll-outs and warned of high risks of a further spike in deaths and hospitalisations in Europe in December and January if the recommended measures are not introduced.
European governments should accelerate their vaccination rates, administer booster shots and reintroduce restrictions, Ms Ammon said in a statement.
"And all those three things have to be done now," she said. "This is not pick and choose."
Around 66 per cent of the European Union’s total population has been fully inoculated, according to the ECDC data. This leaves "a large vaccination gap that cannot be bridged rapidly and gives ample room for the virus to spread", she said.
Lockdowns are like an "emergency brake", Ms Ammon said, used when "you want to bring down a very high case number in a short period of time".
She added: "I am aware that it requires a significant effort from public health authorities and society at large to achieve this goal. But now is the time to walk the extra mile."
Asked whether seasonal festivities should be cancelled, Ms Ammon replied: "We still have some time until Christmas. But if the situation doesn’t get better, it might mean that these measures should be taken over Christmas as well."
World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledging that Europe was again at the epicentre of the pandemic, warned against a "false sense of security" over the protection offered by vaccines.
"No country is out of the woods," he told reporters, adding that he hoped a consensus can be found at a World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting next week for an intellectual property rights waiver for pandemic vaccines, already supported by more than 100 countries.
Sweden will begin gradually rolling out booster shots to all adults, government and health officials said. Booster shots of mRNA vaccine have been offered to people aged 65 or above, with an eye to eventually extending the shots to other groups.
"We are faced with an uncertain winter," Health Minister Lena Hallengren told a news conference. "You can contribute by staying home if you're sick or by getting vaccinated if you haven't already, and taking your booster when you're offered it."
Slovakia reported its highest daily rise in cases on Wednesday, just ahead of a government meeting likely to agree on a short-term lockdown to quell the world's fastest surge in infections.
Neighbouring Austria has already locked down its population this week for at least 10 days, becoming the first to reimpose such restrictions. It will also require the whole population to be vaccinated from Feb 1, infuriating many in a country where scepticism about state mandates affecting individual freedoms runs high.
The Czech Republic reported its highest daily rise in infections, with cases surpassing 25,000 for the first time and putting further strain on hospitals. The government is looking to institute mandatory vaccines for people over 60 and some professions, such as healthcare workers.
Hungary reported a record 12,637 new daily Covid-19 cases.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, which opposes further lockdowns for fear of stifling the economy, launched a vaccination campaign this week, offering shots without prior registration.
But the idea of mandatory vaccinations has also raised concerns among Hungarians.
"Making the vaccine obligatory is a difficult thing as it could limit people severely, including from earning a living, so I think such a decision should be made very carefully," said Ms Zsuzsanna Koszoru as she lined up for a booster shot.
France will announce new Covid-19 containment measures on Thursday (Nov 25) as the infection rate surges nationwide. Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said it wants to avoid major curbs on public life, preferring to strengthen social distancing rules and speeding up its booster campaign.
Italy is expected to restrict access to some indoor venues for people who have not been vaccinated. The Dutch government will announce new measures on Friday.
Many German regions have already started to impose tighter rules amid the country's worst Covid-19 surge yet as the curtain comes down on Chancellor Angela Merkel's era, including demanding that vaccinated people show a negative test to attend indoor events.
Outgoing Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Monday that by the end of the winter, almost everyone in Germany would be "vaccinated, recovered or dead".