PARIS: People raise their hands before the start of a test concert of French rock band Indochine and French DJ Etienne de Crecy, aimed to investigate how such events can take place safely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic at the AccorHotels Arena yesterday. – AFP

COPENHAGEN/WASHINGTON: The WHO’s European director warned that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t end until at least 70 percent of people are vaccinated, and criticized Europe’s vaccine rollout as “too slow”. The World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge said countries and their populations must not become complacent about the pandemic.

“Don’t think the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” Kluge told AFP in an interview, while adding that vaccination rates needed to increase. “The pandemic will be over once we reach 70 percent minimum coverage in vaccination,” the regional director said. In the 53 countries and territories that make up the WHO’s European region – including several in Central Asia – 26 percent of the population has received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

In the European Union, 36.6 percent of the population has received at least one dose and 16.9 percent have been fully vaccinated, according to a count by AFP. Kluge said one of his main concerns was the increased contagiousness of new variants. “We know for example that the B.1617 (Indian variant) is more transmissible than the B.117 (British variant), which already was more transmissible than the previous strain,” Kluge noted.

Cases of the so-called Indian variant have been recorded in 27 of the region’s 53 countries, while the number of new cases, and deaths, has fallen for five consecutive weeks, reaching their lowest levels since mid-October. Worldwide, new cases have dropped for four weeks in a row, according to an AFP tally. But while vaccines have proven effective against coronavirus mutations, people must still be vigilant, Kluge emphasized.

The Belgian doctor said a major concern was that “people drop their guards that they become complacent,” especially going into the summer months. In addition, large gatherings are on the horizon in conjunction with the European football championship. “Let’s finally give COVID-19 the red card, don’t allow extra time for COVID-19,” Kluge quipped, repeating advice to maintain social distances and wear facemasks.

He also underscored that speed is “of essence” during the pandemic. “Our best friend is speed, time is working against us, (and) the vaccination roll-out still goes too slow,” Kluge said. “We need to accelerate, we need to enlarge the number of vaccines,” and European countries needed to show more solidarity. “It is not acceptable that some countries start to vaccinate the younger, healthy part of the population, while other countries in our region still did not cover all the healthcare workers and the most vulnerable people,” Kluge said.

Meanwhile, the United States said Friday it is seriously considering creating a vaccine passport for Americans traveling abroad. “We’re taking a very close look at that,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said of the idea of special documentation for vaccinated Americans who want to travel overseas, as inoculation drives allow Europe and other regions of the world to start opening up from pandemic restrictions.

The administration of President Joe Biden, Mayorkas told ABC television, wants to ensure that “any passport that we provide for vaccinations is accessible to all and that no one is disenfranchised”. Mayorkas’ agency oversees the Transportation Security Administration. The European Union is working to introduce a vaccine travel document for this summer so it can welcome back badly needed tourists, and some EU countries plan to introduce certificates at the national level.

But the idea is controversial in the US. Some conservative states like Florida and Texas reject the idea of vaccine travel documents on grounds this would violate peoples’ basic rights. Last week a lawmaker who supports former president Donald Trump caused an uproar by saying a vaccine passport would be like the yellow star that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. In April White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there was no federal law requiring people to get vaccination certificate in order to travel. – AFP