The European Union needs a vaccination coverage higher than 70% of adult population to stop the spread of new and highly transmissible COVID-19 variants, says Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst, warning the virus can "happily circulate" among the unvaccinated.
"We have to reach a vaccination level that is higher than 70%, that is clear," Ranst told Euronews.
"Against the original variant, the one that came from Wuhan, probably 70% would cut it. But then the British variant came, and then the Indian variant came, and they were much more infectious, which means you need a higher vaccination coverage to sort of counter this."
Van Ranst was speaking to Euronews shortly after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed the bloc had reached its July target of having 70% of its adult population inoculated with at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
The announcement was received as good news, but some observers were quick to point out the target focused on partial, not full vaccination. The Commission shifted the criticism towards member states, arguing its common procurement scheme of vaccines has delivered more than 520 million doses so far – enough to fully vaccinate 70% of the bloc's adult population.
"The reservoir for the virus is not only the adult population, so you have to take into account also the children who for the most part are not vaccinated yet. And then 70% of the adult population means that 30% of the adult population is still unvaccinated," Van Ranst said, echoing the recent comments made by his American counterpart, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who warned the country was entering a "pandemic among the unvaccinated".
"In the beginning, nobody was vaccinated, so everybody could have a very high chance to catch the virus," Van Ranst added.
"Now, 70% of the adult population is vaccinated. They are protected to a very large degree, not completely, but at least [against] hospitalisations, severe disease intensive care and dying from the disease. But that still leaves quite a lot of people that are unvaccinated. And in these unvaccinated persons, the virus can can happily circulate".
Despite the vaccination milestone, the EU has seen in recent weeks a pronounced increase in coronavirus cases, most of which are linked to the spread of the Delta variant. For Van Ranst, two factors explain this new wave of infections: an early lifting of restrictions and tourism arrivals.
"When we look at the countries where there are rising numbers in Europe, these were the countries that opened up fairly early and receive a lot of tourism, and probably one is correlated with the other. Tourism is very important economically for these countries, and that's why they've often opened early, maybe too early," the professor said.
"But the pressure was enormous. Population is sick and tired of the pandemic, and they wanted the society to open up again. So if they would not have opened, it would have been it would have been another kind of chaos."
Van Ranst, who is a professor at KU Leuven university, has been an advisor to the Belgian government since the beginning of the health crisis. He has become one of Europe's most prominent virologists, often attracting both praise and hate for his matter-of-fact, science-based assessments.
In his view, the rising vaccination coverage shouldn't lead to the belief the pandemic is over. Non-pharmaceutical measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing, should remain in place for the time being, he says.
"This pandemic isn't completely over. It ain't over till it's over. And until then, I think being a minimum careful is wise."