European countries are at a "tipping point" of the pandemic, the World Health Organization's regional director said, as infections rise rapidly and the threat of a mutated version of the virus spreading looms.
"We remain in the grip of COVID-19 as cases surge across Europe and we tackle new challenges brought by the mutating virus. This moment represents a tipping point in the course of the pandemic," Hans Kluge said.
The more transmissible variant has already been detected in 22 countries in the WHO's European region, he said, emphasising that countries needed to "intensify" measures to prevent further spread.
"The virus is getting better...and we need to do that too," said Catherine Smallwood with WHO's emergencies programme, explaining that bringing down transmission should be a priority for countries.
Health officials also expect that infections could continue to rise following the holidays, with Kluge stating that there is currently an "incomplete picture of the current epidemiological situation" with lower testing around Christmas and New Year.
How will vaccines impact the pandemic?
Although some countries in Europe, including the UK and EU member states, have begun rolling out vaccines, WHO officials warned not to phase out restrictions.
"The first thing that the vaccination rollout will change will not be transmission but it will be that the most vulnerable people, the ones that we’re vaccinating first, won’t go on to have severe disease and won’t end up in hospital and won’t die," said Smallwood.
"That is the first impact, but that’s not safe to assume it will happen on its own. We still need to continue everything we have been doing at least for the next six months."
Kluge said that although "herd immunity" is a "desired endpoint", countries will first have to reduce the virus spread, in part because it is still unknown for how long the vaccines will prevent infection.
The vaccinations could also "put pressure" on the virus and officials do not know "how the virus itself will continue to change," Smallwood said.
The European region has already suffered immensely due to the pandemic, with 26 million confirmed cases and more than 580,000 deaths in 2020.
Could COVID-19 be eradicated?
In short, officials do not know, but only one human disease has previously been eradicated: smallpox.
There are "huge differences" between smallpox and COVID-19 which has "emerged, it's spread globally and has adapted very well to circulating among humans and has continued to adapt and will continue to adapt," said Smallwood.
She emphasised that there were still many questions about how long the vaccines will produce immunity in humans and how the virus would mutate as more people are vaccinated.
"At the moment, we are very much in the thick of it, not only are we in the thick of it, we are probably in the European region in the most acute phase of transmission," she added.