Addressing The Future of the Covid 19 Pandemic in Europe


A group of experts, including RWTH researchers, have prepared a detailed analysis of the situation and call for a common European approach.


How should Europe deal with the COVID 19 pandemic in the future – what strategies should it pursue, and what specific risks should it consider going forward? The Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization brought together more than two dozen experts from all over Europe – among them scientists from RWTH – who prepared a detailed analysis of the situation for the coming months and years. The results were published in two renowned journals: The Lancet and The Lancet Regional Health – Europe.

In spring 2021, many European countries relaxed coronavirus restrictions or lifted them altogether. However, in combination with the new delta variant, this again led to an increase in infection rates. Data suggest that this variant is significantly more infectious and that even though vaccination is very effective in protecting people from suffering severe courses of the disease, it does not prevent them from transmitting the virus. Increased travel, the planned reopening of schools, and the likelihood of higher infection rates in the upcoming wet and cold season call for a transnational strategy. "It is vital to me that we develop such a European plan of action," says Viola Priesemann, co-coordinator of the publication. "In every European country, the situation is slightly different. Still, we need a common strategy because the virus doesn't stop at borders."

Two Opposing Strategies

The expert group considered two opposing strategies: Either rapidly lift restrictions on the assumption that the possibly subsequent high rates of infection would not overburden the health care systems because enough people are vaccinated or immune; or lift restrictions gradually and in pace with progressing vaccinations in order to keep the rates of infection at low levels.

Looking at the vaccination rates in August 2021, the first strategy may result in infection rates of several hundred cases per 100,000 people per week. The second strategy is based on contact tracing and therefore requires a seven-day incidence well below one hundred. Discrepancies such as that make it difficult for European countries to work together. A high seven-day incidence in one country can quickly spread to its neighbors, after all. Either approach will only be effective if the European countries agree on a common strategy. "It is high time for this because no country can effectively combat the pandemic on its own," says André Calero Valdez of the RWTH Chair of Communication Science.

The benefits of low rates of infection have long been evident. These include lower mortality rates, morbidity, or long-COVID, and helps people to act in solidarity with those not yet protected. With effective testing and contact tracing, the risk of new variants emerging and spreading must be kept low. Fewer employees in quarantine and isolation – due to being infected themselves or having had contact with an infected person – and low incidences are the best guarantee that schools and daycare centers can remain open during the upcoming fall-winter season. High incidences, on the other hand, would still push hospitals and intensive care units to the limit in some countries.

End of the Pandemic Conceivable

The pandemic is not yet over, but an end is conceivable, the study said. Once high vaccination coverage is reached – and if vaccines remain highly effective against new variants – countries could ease restrictions. Until then, the goal must be a joint European approach to minimize the economic and societal cost for Europe and the world.

An extended version of the article in German is available on the expert group’s website. The original article was published in The Lancet on August 10, 2021.