Last month, as Europe finally lifted COVID-19 restrictions, the mood was jubilant across the continent. Outdoor mask mandates and curfews were dropped, Americans were cleared to resume travel to tourist mainstays, and hopes rose that life would quickly return to normal.
The swift spread of the Delta variant, however, has upended all of that wishful thinking and is offering a warning to the U.S.
Fast becoming the dominant strain of COVID-19 across Europe, Delta is wreaking havoc in Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Spain alone reported nearly 44,000 cases on Tuesday, doubling the number recorded one week ago. Trying to blunt the effect of the strain that is expected by August to account for 70 to 90 percent of all cases in the EU, countries on the continent are clamping on new restrictions to counter a mutation that is at least twice as infectious at the variety that shuttered the world in 2020.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced on Monday that patrons must now present “health passes” showing full vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter bars, cafés, restaurants, theaters, or museums. Greece and Portugal have imposed similar requirements for those wishing to dine out or check into hotels. In the Netherlands, nightclubs, and discos, closed for a year, opened for mere days before Prime Minister Mark Rutte ordered them shut again.
“What we thought was possible in practice turned out to be wrong after all,” Rutte explained.
In Malta — the world’s only country where over 70 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated — the government has barred all entry to people who have not been vaccinated.
Curfews are being reinstated in Spain; in Barcelona, a hotbed of the Delta variant, nightclubs that opened two weeks ago are now shuttered again. Bars, restaurants, and all nonessential businesses have been ordered to close by 12:30 a.m., and further restrictions are expected to soon follow.
As in the U.S., where Delta is also now the leading strain, COVID-19 case numbers in Europe that had been dropping in the past three months are back on the rise. With just 44 percent of Europeans fully vaccinated, there remains a large swath of the population who are particularly vulnerable to infection.
“Right now if you’re under-vaccinated or unvaccinated, you’re at high risk of getting Delta when there’s so much transmission,” Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston told Yahoo News.
For tens of millions of Europeans who are awaiting their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the risks from Delta are very real. Research indicates that a single shot reduces the likelihood of contracting the virus by only 30 percent or less.
“A single dose, especially with the AstraZeneca vaccine, provides relatively little protection,” Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Yahoo News.
The suggested protocol for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is widely used across Europe, is to wait three months between doses, opening a window of opportunity for the virus to continue spreading. In response, many places are now speeding up the wait time. In Barcelona, for example, officials winnowed down the time frame between doses to just one month.
And while the Delta variant in Europe is largely affecting unvaccinated 15- to 30-year-olds, many of whom came last month to party in Spain and who may experience it as a bad cold, the upsurge in new cases presents a hazard for all. Hospital admissions are quickly rising in Spain, and the spread of the virus has the potential to infect those already vaccinated. Even the younger cohort should be worried, Hotez said, because “between 10 to 30 percent of them are getting long-haul COVID and potentially neurologic disability.”
“Delta is everywhere in Lisbon,” said Portugal-based art director Polly O’Flynn, whose entire creative team was stricken ill after an indoor lunch in late June. “The mood feels dark.”
“The Delta variant is a result of a double mutation in the virus,” Spain-based Dr. Daniel Lopez Acuña, former director of WHO in charge of crisis management, told Yahoo News. “One mutation increases the transmissibility of this variant,” he added, while “the second mutation increases its probability of escaping or avoiding the efficacy of the vaccine.”
“Everybody is vulnerable,” said Lopez, who urged people to continue using masks and to avoid crowds, even if they’re fully vaccinated.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is urging Europeans to keep up their guard, while pushing countries to “speed up their vaccination efforts and really put an emphasis also on complete vaccination,” said Helena Gomes, who heads the ECDC’s Scientific Process and Methods division and is currently running the agency’s COVID-19 dedicated team. “Even the vaccines do not reduce the risk to zero. But if we reach a vaccine effectiveness of around 90 percent or over 90 percent with two shots, this is the most powerful tool that we actually have. So we are really stressing the need for complete vaccination.”
But while most of the continent is frantically trying to slam on the brakes, the United Kingdom, which left the European Union seven months ago, is going its own way. On Sunday, London’s Wembley Stadium was filled with 60,000 raucous soccer fans who smashed in to the Euro 2020 championship — a sight that made health officials shudder.
A packed Wembley Stadium in London for the Euro 2020 championship final between Italy and England on Sunday. (Getty Images)
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO infectious disease epidemiologist and COVID-19 technical lead, tweeted during the match, “Am I supposed to be enjoying watching transmission happening in front of my eyes?… #SARSCoV2 #DeltaVariant will take advantage of unvaccinated people, in crowded settings, unmasked, screaming/shouting/singing. Devastating.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with a plan to entirely reopen his country on July 19, designated as “Freedom Day.” Protesting the move, 115 scientists, physicians, epidemiologists, and public health officials published an open letter last week in the Lancet calling on Johnson to drop the plan. “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment,” they wrote, “and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19, 2021.”
For the moment, however, Johnson’s government has given no indication that it will change course. Instead, it plans to drop all mask requirements as well as limits on crowd sizes and requirements to quarantine — although with only 52 percent fully vaccinated there, a health minister warned Britons that they may see daily cases balloon to 100,000 or more. The U.K., where 11 million are awaiting their second shots, is hustling to make more of those vaccines available in the days before Freedom Day launches.
As for the rest of Europe, French President Macron, who like the leaders of Italy and Greece is now also mandating vaccinations for health care workers, may have stumbled on the most effective means to spur holdouts to finally roll up their sleeves. In the hours after he announced that “health passes” would be required to enter French cafés, restaurants, or bars, over 1.3 million French people made vaccine appointments.
While Europeans are generally taking the reversing of course without excessive grumbling, public health scientist and sociologist Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, hopes that things don’t get so bad in the U.S. “We’re in a quandary. We’ve opened up, and so if there is a need to go back to mask mandates or things get bad enough that we’re having to go back into closing places down, that is going to be politically tricky. It would be a political tightrope we’d have to walk.”