Just last week, Europe had recorded fewer than 50 cases of the new coronavirus across seven countries, with each directly traceable back to China.
Now more than 350 cases have been confirmed, mostly in northern Italy following a major outbreak over the weekend which sent alarm bells ringing around the continent, as health authorities and experts debate what measures, if any, will halt the further spread of the disease.
At least 11 people have died from the virus in Italy, as the government has placed about a dozen towns in the country’s industrial and financial heartlands of Lombardy and Veneto under total lockdown – with schools shuttered, public events banned and local transport closed – but confirmed cases linked to the region have already appeared in France, Austria, Spain, Greece and Croatia.
The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) has said there remains a moderate to high chance of similar coronavirus clusters to those in Italy, whose origins remain unknown, occurring elsewhere in Europe.
But despite the sudden jump in cases, significant investments made by European nations in public healthcare, as well as overarching coordination from the ECDC, have made the continent more resilient to viral outbreaks compared with much of the world, he added.
“Because of the heightened alert, and [European] countries getting more and more prepared because of what’s happening there, we might not see something as major as Italy again.”
Health ministers in nearby France, Germany and Greece have suggested they could order similarly stringent measures should their own countries develop large outbreaks, but for now European health authorities have called for a proportionate response to the coronavirus threat, and stepped up preparations in anticipation of further infections.
“What the different countries do will be driven by their previous experience and capacity in public health, and that does vary from country to country, even within the European Union,” said Paul Hunter, a professor at Norwich Medical School.
France, which at the time of publication had recorded 17 cases and two deaths, has prepared 108 hospitals, with at least one in every region, to admit, isolate and care for coronavirus patients. It has also boosted testing capacity in hospitals in Paris and Marseille to more than 1,400 per day, according to Health Minister Olivier Veran.
Meanwhile, Germany’s health ministry has allocated 23 million euros ($25m) to its coronavirus response and said it was “well prepared” for new cases, noting its advanced warning and reporting system and a coordinated network of specialist clinics. Two new cases have been reported on Wednesday by local media in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Wurttemberg, bringing the total to 18, but the overall risk in Germany remains low, according to the Robert Koch Institute, a government research agency.
Both nations have also made bulk orders for surgical masks and other protective equipment for health workers, amid worldwide shortages which the World Health Organization (WHO) has blamed on unnecessary stockpiling by the public.
Switzerland has tightened measures at border crossings with neighbouring Italy, as authorities improve testing lab capacity and widen awareness campaigns. The interior ministry has announced tests will be made available to all people exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
In the United Kingdom, a number of schools have closed for the week over concerns pupils may have contracted COVID-19 – its official name, from COrona VIrus 2019 – while skiing in Italy during half-term, the Press Association reports.
However, health officials have said only those showing symptoms should self-isolate, and that the country’s risk level remains low. All airports with flight links to China are under close monitoring, and public health officials have been deployed to London Heathrow, the country’s busiest airport – and the second-busiest airport in the world, behind Dubai.
At present, European health services are pursuing a strategy of containment. In practice, this means identifying infections and tracing their origin, so that any people who have come in contact with the disease can be tested, isolated and treated as necessary.