Fifth COVID-19 vaccine authorized in Europe as Omicron continues to surge

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People enter a vaccination center in Brussels, Belgium, June 8, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has added a fifth vaccine to its anti-COVID arsenal as the Omicron variant continued to spread across Europe.

"EMA has recommended granting a conditional marketing authorization for Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine Nuvaxovid to prevent COVID-19 in people from 18 years of age," the agency announced on Monday.

The protein-based vaccine manufactured by U.S. biotechnology company Novavax is the fifth to be authorized for use in the European Union (EU), after Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca/Oxford, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.

Fears over community spread

In its weekly epidemiological update published on Monday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said that 1,533 new cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) between Dec. 16 and Dec. 19, contributing to an overall total of 4,691 confirmed cases.

Although Omicron cases were initially linked to travel, an increasing number of infections are now reported to have been acquired within the EU/EEA, including as parts of clusters and outbreaks, indicating community spread.

Most cases for which there is available information on severity are either asymptomatic or mild, and no Omicron-related deaths have been reported so far, according to the ECDC.

In the EU/EEA, the overall COVID-19 case notification rate during the week ending on Dec. 12 (week 49 of the year) was 783.7 per 100,000 population, down from 809.1 the week before. The 14-day notification rate of new COVID-19 related deaths was 58.8 per one million population, up from 55.8 the previous week.

By the end of week 49, the cumulative uptake of at least one vaccine dose in the EU/EEA was 83.2 percent among adults and 71.6 percent in the total population. Cumulative uptake of full vaccination was 78.5 percent among adults and 67.2 percent in the total population, the ECDC said.

Measures vary across Europe

Some countries push vaccination, others impose restrictions.

In the United Kingdom (UK), Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid reiterated his call for citizens to get vaccinated, writing on Twitter that "A total of 5.37 million vaccines were delivered in the UK last week. That is a 65 percent increase from the previous week. If you're eligible for the jab, please come forward as soon as possible."

Germany has added the UK, Denmark, Norway and France to its list of "areas at particularly high risk of infection" due to the high levels of virus spread there.

Travelers entering Germany from risk areas must quarantine for 14 days, including those who are vaccinated or who recovered from the virus, according to the country's Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Rome on Monday, told journalists that "this week we will assess possible measures to be taken ahead of the Christmas holidays ... The decision will be made based on the latest sequencing data to see the speed with which the Omicron variant is spreading."

"We will wait until Wednesday or Thursday," Draghi added. "The key thing is to proceed with the third (vaccine) dose with maximum speed."

Scholz said at his joint press conference with Draghi that "there will be further restrictions on personal contacts" in his country and that "we must be extremely ready, because the Omicron variant is spreading significantly in Europe and in Germany."

The Netherlands entered into a full lockdown on Sunday, which will remain in force until Jan. 14. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at a press conference that "Omicron is spreading even faster than we feared, so we must intervene now,"

In Ireland, the health authorities said that "visits to private homes should be kept to a maximum of three other households (that is, four households in total)" over the Christmas and New Year's festivities and "no indoor events, including entertainment, cultural, community and sporting events" will be allowed to take place after 8 p.m.

"The public health advice is that the future trajectory (of the virus) remains uncertain," Ireland's Department of Health wrote on its website. 

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