Press conferences took on an almost celebratory tone as Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors announced road maps away from Covid-19 restrictions, hailing their country’s uptake rates and speaking colorfully about a return to normalcy.
But as another Covid-struck winter grips Europe, many of those countries are now reversing course.
Ireland introduced a
midnight curfew on the hospitality industryearlier this week amid a surge in cases, despite having one of Europe’s best vaccination rates. In Portugal — the envy of the continent, where 87% of the total population is inoculated — the government is mulling new measures as infections inch upwards.
Britain has meanwhile endured a lengthy and stubborn wave of infections despite its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, often trumpeting the country’s early lead in administering jabs. And in the Netherlands new restrictions have come into force, prompting protests that turned violent in Rotterdamon Friday night.
This is all taking place despite one central fact remaining true — the vaccines are working, and working well.
Some might wonder how both things can be true. But as nations are discovering, even a relatively strong vaccination rate is not enough alone to stop the spread of Covid-19 — and warning signs from Germany and Austria, where infections have skyrocketed in recent weeks — show the dangers of complacency. Austria will enter a total national lockdown on Monday, just days after it imposed a lockdown on unvaccinated people.
The vaccine “continues to provide very good protection — the immunity against severe disease and death is very well maintained,” Charles Bangham, a professor of immunology and the co-director of Imperial College London’s Institute of Infection, told CNN.
“But we know that the Delta variant is very much more infectious,” he said. “At the same time, there have been changes in society and behavior … and in many countries, some of the precautions are being less stringently observed.”
To put it simply, when it comes to stopping transmission,even a very good vaccination rate isn’t always good enough.
“Vaccinations help,” said Ralf Reintjes, professor of epidemiology and public health surveillance at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany. “They’re one stone in the process of stopping the virus. But it’s not strong enough alone.”
What counts as ‘highly vaccinated’?
Ireland is home to one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates — 89.1% of people over the age of 12, and three-quarters of all people, having been immunized — but it recently imposed a midnight curfew on bars, restaurants and nightclubs as it battles a growing surge in cases and hospitalizations.
And that shouldn’t be surprising, experts say — because even small pockets of unvaccinated people can drive transmission. In Ireland’s population of 5 million, around a million are still not protected.
“What we have now is an epidemic of the unvaccinated — about 10% of our population over 12 is unvaccinated, and we’re seeing an epidemic in those people, predictably,” said Sam McConkey, head of the International Health and Tropical Medicine department at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin.
McConkey noted that most children are unvaccinated, that elderly and vulnerable people with co-morbidities can still suffer breakthrough cases, and asymptomatic, healthy people are catching and passing on the virus.
“The combination of those four or five things has meant that our hospitals are getting quite full,” he said.
Leaders around Europe have increasingly become frustrated at the unvaccinated pockets of their societies. In a dramatic step on Friday, Austria announced it would make vaccinations mandatory for everyone from February. From Monday in neighboring Czech Republic, home of one of the EU’s worst uptake rates, confirmation of a vaccination or recovery will be needed to enter various hospitality venues after the country recorded its highest number of new cases to date on Friday.
But exasperation is mounting in better-vaccinated nations, too. On Wednesday, Ireland’s deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told CNN that unprotected people are “causing a lot of the trouble” — and that Ireland “wouldn’t be imposing the restrictions we are imposing now” if everyone was vaccinated.
The difference between vaccination rates of 70% and 80% is huge, experts say, because each extra percentile further isolates the virus and eases pressure on hospitals. But McConkey said that given the transmissibility of the current Delta variant, no country can truly consider themselves “highly vaccinated” — he argued that until they inoculate a percentage in the mid-90s of their total population, unvaccinated pockets of society would still drive transmission.
And so while vaccines are arguably the most important tool in fighting the virus, they can’t be expected to stamp out transmission by themselves.
“The new viral variants are just intrinsically more infectious than the old strains,” said McConkey, who in addition to his research works as a consultant at Beaumont Hospital Dublin.
Vaccines continue to dramatically reduce the likelihood of serious illness and death, he noted — and they have therefore changed the make-up of those needing treatment in intensive care units. There are far fewer admissions than in previous waves, and “it’s now mostly unvaccinated young people, or very elderly people,” he said.