Coronavirus infections are surging again in Europe, but current data indicate the outbreak is becoming less deadly.
Increased testing is catching the disease earlier, and in contrast to spikes in March and April -- when the pandemic ripped through nursing homes -- authorities are doing a better job of protecting the elderly and other vulnerable people, according to scientists.
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France and Spain both recorded the highest numbers of new cases since April in the past week, while Italy reported its largest increase since May and Germany’s daily rates have doubled in recent weeks.
It's also possible the coronavirus has mutated to be become less deadly, though more infectious, say experts.
Yet as the contagion spreads again across the continent, fatalities are rising less dramatically -- at least for now.
Coronavirus fatality rates as a percentage of cases have declined.
Improved access to testing
“Improved access to testing is likely to be the main reason, especially as people become more aware of the symptoms,” said John Ford, a lecturer in public health at the University of Cambridge.
Many of the infections stem from younger people traveling and partying during the summer holidays, and some of those cases have been asymptomatic.
Better treatment of the disease and improved procedures for identifying COVID-related deaths also help lower the death toll, Ford said.
With European countries gradually re-opening their economies, including greenlighting travel in mid-June, officials have been bracing for a surge as more people come into contact again. But after economies were decimated from lockdowns, they’re loath to revive stringent restrictions on activity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who won plaudits for her handling of the initial phases of the pandemic, advised her peers to avoid renewed lockdowns and coordinate actions. The focus instead is on targeted measures such as stepping up the use of face masks, restricting operations of bars and restaurants and requiring travelers returning from hard-hit areas to quarantine or prove they’re not infected.
Speedy drug trials could be partly responsible for the death toll remaining in check, with therapeutics like the low-cost, anti-inflammatory dexamethasone found to reduce the mortality of severely ill Covid-19 patients.
A number of countries have also changed how deaths are calculated in recent weeks. The U.K. toll fell by more than 5,000 earlier this month after the government said a fatality would only be classed as Covid-related if the person died within 28 days of a positive test.
False sense of security
Since infections in most European countries began climbing only days or a few weeks ago, deaths could rise again too.
Given the lag between infection and death, it’s important countries don’t develop a false sense of security, said Graham Cooke, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London.
“There’s always a significant delay between a spike in cases and a spike in deaths, which is in the region of weeks,” said Cooke. “It’s possible that if more of the transmission early on is between younger groups that there will be more of a delay before we see the rise in mortality.”