BERLIN (AFP) - More than half of all European adults are now fully vaccinated, the EU said Thursday (July 22), as several countries across Europe and Asia battle fresh outbreaks blamed on the fast-spreading Delta variant.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said cases in her country were rising "exponentially", while in Japan the delayed Olympics Games were set to open with almost no spectators and with a blanket of Covid rules in place.
And the spotlight once again turned to the virus' origins after the WHO called for an audit of the Chinese lab at the heart of speculations about where the virus first emerged, sparking a fiery response from Beijing.
More than four million people have now died from the virus since it first emerged in December 2019, and though vaccines are picking up globally, Delta is fuelling a rise in infections and prompting governments to re-impose anti-virus measures to avoid dreaded new waves.
The EU said on Thursday that 200 million Europeans had been fully vaccinated, more than half of the adult population but still short of a 70 percent target set for the summer.
The fresh data came as Merkel urged more Germans to get vaccinated, sounding the alarm over a fresh spike in cases in Germany.
"The infection figures are rising again and with a clear and worrying dynamic," Merkel told a press conference in Berlin.
"We are seeing exponential growth," she said, adding that "every vaccination... is a small step towards a return to normality".
Germany on Thursday recorded 1,890 new infections over the past 24 hours and an incidence rate of 12.2 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days - more than double rates in early July.
"With a rising incidence rate, it could be that we need to introduce additional measures," she said.
Germany joins a number of European nations that have seen cases climb in recent weeks.
The new outbreaks have been largely fuelled by the Delta variant, first detected in India, which is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus over the coming months, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said Wednesday.
It has now been recorded in 124 territories - 13 more than last week - and already accounts for more than three-quarters of sequenced specimens in many major countries.
France this week rolled out new rules requiring a so-called health pass for all events or places with more than 50 people before being extended to restaurants, cafes and shopping centres in August.
People need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain access, after the country reported a new surge - more 21,000 new cases on Wednesday, the highest level since early May.
Cases are also soaring in the UK, where most restrictions were lifted this week, and on Thursday British supermarkets warned of possible food shortages because staff were being forced to self-isolate.
Countries in Asia are seeing some of their worst outbreaks to date, with Indonesia becoming a new global hotspot as Vietnam and Thailand face new anti-virus rules.
In Tokyo, the Olympics were due to open Friday after a year-long pandemic delay, though it promised to be a Games like no other in history.
Spectators are mostly banned, and athletes, journalists and organisers are subject to strict virus measures during the event being held under a Covid cloud.
"It's completely different from the last Games (in 1964) when the whole city was filled with festive mood," said 80-year-old Tokyo resident Michiko Fukui.
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, attention turned once again to the international probe origins of the virus.
The WHO said last week that a second stage of the probe should include audits of Chinese labs, as the US increases pressure for an investigation into a biotech lab in Wuhan.
Long dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 may have emerged from a lab leak has been gaining momentum.
But China's vice health minister Zeng Yixin told reporters Thursday that he was "extremely surprised" by the WHO plan, which he said showed "disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science".
Elsewhere on Wednesday, the agency focused on another aspect of the pandemic: a mounting mental health crisis brought on by anxieties around catching the virus, the psychological impact of lockdowns and isolation, along with stresses linked to unemployment and financial worries.
"Everyone is affected in one way or another," the WHO said in a statement at a meeting in Athens Thursday.
"The mental health impacts of the pandemic will be long term and far-reaching."