LONDON – During Memorial Day weekend, 135,000 people blocked the oval at the Indianapolis 500. Restaurants across the United States were crowded with customers as mask warrants were dropped.
The formula, which got the blessing of the Biden administration, was succinct: in essence, if you’re fully immunized, you can do whatever you want.
But while the United States appears to be trying to close the curtain on the pandemic, across the ocean, in Britain and the European Union, it is a whole different story.
Despite falling infection levels and a booming vaccination program, parts of Europe are maintaining limits on gatherings, reimposing travel restrictions and weighing down local lockdowns.
In Britain, the spread of a new, highly contagious variant first detected in India has muddied the waters as the country plans to return to something more like pre-pandemic life on June 21.
Parts of Britain have decided to extend lockdown restrictions. Last week, the government tightened its travel rules, including for fully vaccinated people, removing Portugal – Europe’s most popular tourist destination – from the list of places Britons could fly without strict quarantine.
And scientists are hotly debating whether to reopen on June 21, with some saying the costs of delaying it for a few weeks would be paltry compared to the damage that could be done by giving the variant first detected in India. , known as Delta, additional opportunities to spread while people still gain immunity.
Although vaccinations got off to a slow start in much of Europe, they have since helped reduce cases, such as in the United States. Nonetheless, on the fundamental question of how to approach ending coronavirus restrictions, America and Europe have diverged.
“We are now looking at a variant for which we have less knowledge about its properties,” Theo Sanderson, researcher at Wellcome Sanger Institute, said of Delta. “It just means we have less certainty about what things will look like in the future.”
Britain has become the most sophisticated laboratory in the world for the evolution of the virus, with 60% of coronavirus cases in England analyzed by genomic sequencing. This has allowed the country to spot the first signs of dangerous variants and has made Britain a harbinger of challenges facing even highly vaccinated countries as new versions of the virus reach the unvaccinated.
While scientists disagree on the exact severity of the threat the Delta variant poses to Britain, fears about its potential to undo some of the country’s hard-won progress towards reopening have grown.
“The British are worried more than any other country,” said Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London. “We seem to be much more receptive to doomsday scenarios than we are in the United States”
Since the Delta variant arrived in Britain in March, it has quickly overtaken other versions of the virus, including the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain which has contributed to deadly waves around the world this winter. This, in turn, created localized epidemics that pushed Covid cases to the top.
A leading scientific adviser to the UK government estimated Friday that the Delta variant was about 60% more contagious than the previous one from Great Britain. Health officials have also warned that cases caused by the Delta variant could carry a higher risk of hospitalization, although it is too early to say for sure.
The divergent strategies of European nations and the United States also reflect broader differences in how Western governments view their responsibility to unvaccinated people, the scientists said.
Many states in the US began drastically reducing restrictions soon after making all adults eligible for vaccines, whether or not absorption levels were as high as desired. The economy has reopened, and with fully vaccinated people more protected against the Delta variant, the United States appears to be in a strong position to limit its spread.
Scientists, however, fear the variant may soon gain traction in unvaccinated pockets of the United States, where the virus continues to spread. making people sick and killing people at high rates. The Biden administration is still looking for ways to overcome this hesitation about the vaccine.
In Britain, even with more than 90 percent of people over 65 having been fully vaccinated, health officials have resisted such a rapid reopening as they seek to increase vaccination rates in areas low income and not white.
“We know that the virus mainly hits the poorest communities and people of color the hardest,” said James Naismith, structural biologist and director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, a UK medical research center. âThe American strategy perhaps reflects a deeper commitment to individualism. The UK vaccination campaign is very well run and more a reflection of the feeling of being our brother’s keeper. “
Britain decided last year to delay second doses of the vaccine to give more people partial protection from a single dose. This helped him withstand the surge of winter, but also left him potentially exposed to the Delta variant. Health officials said last week that there was strong evidence of a “reduction in vaccine effectiveness” for the new variant which was most pronounced after a single dose.
Health officials have since changed the guidelines to speed up second doses, but many scientists are urging the government not to commit to reopening until the impact of the variant becomes clearer.
As indoor dining has resumed, most groups of more than six are banned, and nightclubs, concert halls and major events remain closed, leaving many hotel companies still in shock. The UK government has long targeted June 21 – “freedom day” in tabloid jargon – as the date it hoped to “remove all legal limits on social contact”.
The critical question is whether a recent increase in Covid cases will accelerate and result in a wave of serious illness, which in part depends on how quickly people get their second dose. Scientists reported last week that Pfizer’s vaccine elicited a weaker antibody response to the Delta variant than the original virus, especially in the elderly, raising concerns that a booster is needed.
“There is reason to be hopeful – we don’t see a big trend in hospital admissions – but it’s only the first few days,” Prof Naismith said. âIf we don’t see anything by June 14, we can expire. We don’t need to hold our breath.
Other scientists argue that the widespread vaccinations changed the calculation of reopening. While only half of UK adults are fully vaccinated, that includes almost all of the most vulnerable. And 76 percent in total got a shot. As a result, some scientists say increases in new infections are tolerable as long as the vast majority do not lead to serious illness or death.
“This variant is going to have a hard time spreading, as it is limited to young people and limited to certain parts of the country,” Professor Spector said.
He said the government needed to help neighborhoods where it was spreading and, beyond that, encourage people to continue working from home and socially distancing themselves when possible. But delaying the easing of restrictions, he said, was not necessary.
“We have to get used to the idea that there will be a few thousand cases every day and that it is part of our life,” said Prof Spector. “These cases will be milder.”
While many Britons reluctantly accepted the need for a lockdown when hospitals were overwhelmed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government felt increasing pressure to stick to the June 21 reopening. Even his decision to limit travel to Portugal sparked outrage: “The nightmare of the British vacation abroad”, shouted the front page of a tabloid Friday.
In the European Union, where immunization levels are still lower than in the United States and Great Britain, authorities are also cautious. Germany, France and Austria all moved quickly to ban most visitors from Britain.
Like Britain, the bloc was punished by a wave of British variants this winter which contributed to one of the highest death tolls in the world. Governments have been hammered for not consolidating the gains of last summer, when lockdowns were lifted across much of Europe.
In the block, 47% of the adult population received a first dose, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, but only 23% have full protection.
For these reasons, European leaders have said vigilance is needed, even though infections have fallen by around 80% since mid-April.
“This progress is fragile,” warned Hans Kluge, director of the World Health Organization in Europe last month. “We’ve been here before. Let’s not make the same mistakes we made around this time last year.”
Yet now that supply bottlenecks have eased, EU officials are confident that 70% of adults will be fully immunized by July.
The dilemma Europe faces over how to respond to the Delta variant may recur as the virus continues to evolve, some scientists have said. As long as it remains in high circulation, even more transmissible variants could emerge, forcing countries to consider whether to fold back again or risk the virus spreading through unprotected populations.
The poorest countries, however, face much more difficult choices. If the same kind of lockdown that controlled Britain’s variant proves insufficient against this new one, those countries may have to choose between even more draconian and economically damaging closures or even more devastating epidemics. The Delta variant has already wreaked havoc in South Asia.
âOverall it’s a nightmare because most of the world is still unvaccinated,â said Jeremy Kamil, virologist at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport. âIt raises the stakes. “