GENEVA: A 53-country region in Europe and Central Asia faces the "real threat" of a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic in the coming weeks or already is experiencing a new wave of infections, the head of the World Health Organisation's regional office said Thursday.
Dr.Hans Kluge said case counts are beginning to near record levels again and the pace of transmission in the region, which stretches as far east as the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, is of "grave concern."
"We are at another critical point of pandemic resurgence," Kluge told reporters from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic, where we were one year ago."
He said the difference now is that health authorities know more about the virus and have better tools to combat it.
Relaxed prevention measures and low vaccination rates in some areas explain the latest surge, he said.
Kluge said hospitalisation rates due to COVID-19 in the 53-country region more than doubled over the last week.
If that trajectory continues, the region could see another 500,000 pandemic deaths by February, he said.
WHO Europe says the region tallied nearly 1.8 million new weekly cases, an increase of about 6% from the previous week, and 24,000 COVID-19 weekly deaths, a 12% gain.
Kluge said the countries in the region were at "varying stages of vaccination rollout" and that region-wide an average of 47% of people were fully vaccinated.
Only eight countries had 70% of their populations fully vaccinated.
"We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of COVID-19, to preventing them from happening in the first place," Kluge said.
WHO's headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday reported that cases had risen in Europe for the fifth consecutive week, making it the only world region where COVID-19 is still increasing.
The infection rate was by far the highest in Europe, which reported some 192 new cases per 100,000 people.
Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have seen daily case numbers shoot up in recent weeks.