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The Evening Report - May 25
Experts warn don’t ignore COVID. Team Europe will train Ukrainians on F-16s.
“The European region cannot afford to be complacent in its response to COVID.”
A group of European healthcare and Infectious Disease experts, and virologists, along with the WHO’s European Regional Director, have authored a letter urging countries across Europe to stop ignoring COVID.
“While the world is transitioning out of the emergency phase of the COVID pandemic, new surges of COVID continue to occur across Europe because of persistent viral circulation and the regular emergence of new subvariants of Omicron. New infections occur even during the summer months, a notable difference from the influenza virus and other seasonal respiratory infections. The breadth of the most recent COVID waves remains difficult to assess, because of a steep reduction in diagnostic testing across the continent.”
They note while none of the coronavirus waves so far have threatened to overwhelm healthcare systems, COVID deaths “remains unacceptably high.” Last year, there were a reported 467,921 pandemic deaths in Europe alone.
While COVID vaccines, and updated variant-specific boosters, have helped to reduce severe infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, from previous highs the exponential increase in contagiousness from ever-evolving variants has led to more infections “so that the absolute number of deaths in Europe remained high.”
The group points out that despite a return to ‘normal’ infected people continue to be admitted to hospitals, seniors and other vulnerable populations remain at high risk, and a number of those people who become infected become afflicted with long-COVID. They also note coronavirus and other respiratory infections are having an economic impact by increasing the number of days people call in sick.
“These impacts of COVID are likely to continue in the coming years if more efforts are not made to decrease the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 and mitigate its impact on public health. Options are readily available to reduce the burden of SARS-CoV-2 and other endemic respiratory pathogens. We thus question the current high level of political and societal complacency towards COVID in Europe. Much more strategic attention and investments are needed now to more effectively manage COVID and develop greater resilience to future respiratory pathogens.”
With public PCR testing infrastructure being dismantled the specialists penning the missive note it undermines the ability of high-risk populations to use anti-viral treatments. COVID treatment pills like Paxlovid have to be taken within five days of symptoms appearing. Without access to accurate testing and timely results, the treatment window could easily be missed.
The group is urging European governments and healthcare authorities to make efforts to limit COVID transmission, protect seniors, and high-risk populations. They recommend improving ventilation and indoor air quality as a cost-effective way to help combat infection spread and the associated risks.
“Revisiting the surveillance and monitoring of respiratory infectious diseases in Europe has become imperative. Europe needs to be moving towards integrated respiratory virus surveillance, building on the lessons and innovations seen during the pandemic. Robust surveillance for respiratory diseases involves strategic investments, such as wastewater and syndromic surveillance, and update of pandemic preparedness plans.”
Longer-term strategies, strengthening health systems, addressing healthcare staff shortages, and developing pandemic prevention and preparedness plans also top the group’s wish list.
“Europe needs to develop resilience in our public health systems for future emerging pathogens and get better prepared for other potential future health hazards responsible for a public health crisis. Failure to take these steps now will result in more deaths due to COVID and other respiratory pathogens.”
The article in full can be found HERE.
COVID hospitalizations (195) decreased (-3) while the number of severely infected people in an ICU (8) is unchanged day to day of those, the number on a ventilator (1) inched downward (-1).
Infection-related admissions to a psychiatric facility (22) are unchanged.
In Denmark, vulnerable seniors continue to bear the lion’s share of pandemic-related hospitalizations. Seniors over 65 made up 75% of all COVID admissions in the last week.
Denmark has reported another 30 pandemic deaths in the last week.
The Statens Serum Institute says there was a slight week-to-week increase in virus activity as caught by COVID wastewater surveillance. However, the overall trend continues to be a downward one as measured over the last three or four weeks.
The seven day positivity percentage is 10.3%.
XBB variants are dominant in Denmark making up about 90% of the incredibly low number of just 200 positive tests that were genetically sequenced over a two-week period. XBB.1.5 and XBB.1.91 are the two strains the SSI calls “especially dominant.”
In Sweden, COVID hospitalizations (369) have dropped (-73) while intensive care admissions (8) also dipped (-5).
Sweden’s maligned COVID response strategy has taken another hit this time in a study examining pandemic mortality rates. In a pre-print study from the Swedish Public Health Agency and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the agencies examined coronavirus fatalities in two countries.
Citing the many similarities between the two Nordic neighbours and conversely the contrast to their vastly different COVID response strategies researchers examined coronavirus deaths and excess mortality rates. Norway enacted strict lockdowns until its population was largely vaccinated. While Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to allowing the virus to run amok in a bid for herd immunity drew scathing criticism.
Researchers concluded that 30 months after the pandemic started the cumulative mortality rate was about 35% higher in Sweden than in Norway. To put it another way, the study found that Sweden could have prevented an estimated 3,915 of its 15,102 pandemic deaths to that point. Conversely, strict lockdowns in Norway saved at least 2,025 lives.
The pre-print published in The Lancet can be found HERE.
The Finnish Institute for Health has registered 1,303 new infections and 87 more virus deaths in its latest weekly update.
The COVID situation in Norway is mild but in its bi-weekly coronavirus update, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health warns hospitals to brace for a possible summer infection wave.
While it doesn’t provide any numbers the NIPH says “there has been little coronavirus infection” in recent weeks. It adds COVID wastewater surveillance also continues to show a downward trend in virus activity as it has for the last six weeks.
COVID hospitalizations (64) have dropped (-35) as have intensive care admissions which the institute says are down “slightly” with just one new patient last week. It says the number of infection-related visits to a family doctor is “currently low.”
In the last two weeks, Norway has recorded another 31 coronavirus deaths.
On the variant front, the NIPH says recombinant XBB strains make up over 94% of all sequenced positive tests. Of those, XBB.1.5 remains dominant but the institute notes cases of XBB.1.9 are “rapidly increasing.”
Seniors over 75 and those in care homes are recommended to get another booster dose if it has been at least six months since their last one. 75% of seniors over 75 and 61% of those aged 65 to 74 have had two booster doses. While 26% of those over 75 have had a 3rd booster shot.
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health has declared this year’s flu season over and has issued its last update until next winter’s influenza season. While there are still cases of influenza B infections hospital numbers are falling steadily with just 28 admissions and no new intensive care patients last week.
64% of seniors over 65 had a flu shot this influenza season while the vaccination rate among children under 17 was a mere 7.9%.
The NIPH also reports a “steep increase” in rhinovirus infections in recent weeks with the positivity percentage hitting 18.9% last week. However, the institute cautions that is pretty normal for this time of year. Parainfluenza cases also increased a little last week.
COVID hospital admissions in the United Kingdom continue to decline, falling by another 13% week to week according to the COVID Actuaries Response Group. Admissions dropped across all regions of the country with the South-East region seeing the steepest declines (-21%).
The coronavirus reinfection rate, or R0, in the UK, remains stable at 0.92. Anything over one indicates degrees of a spreading epidemic.
Interestingly, the British National Health Services has been tracking hospital -acquired coronavirus infections, which dropped by 13% last week with 696 people likely becoming infected while in a hospital.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is reporting 3,579 new infections and another 40 coronavirus deaths in its latest weekly update.
PHAC has begun publishing a coronavirus activity map graphic.
The weekly positivity percentage is 9.6%, a very slight week-to-week decrease.
Most COVID hospitalization numbers continued to trend downward across Canada but overall infected-related activity remains elevated across the health care system. In the week ending May 16, the total number of hospital beds in use by pandemic patients dropped by 164, to 2,610 beds in use. Of those, general admissions declined by 179 to 2,476. Intensive care admissions bucked the trend increasing by 15 to 134 patients. And the number of beds in use by a person on a ventilator eased to 67, a drop of five.
⚡️Energy & Environment🍃
Fears of a recession in Europe appear to be fading. In its spring economic forecast, the EU Commission is predicting economic growth of 1% this year. It is also forecasting that inflation will ease to 6.7%.
EU Commission Senior Vice-Chair Valdis Dombrovskis said the EU's economy is surprisingly strong.
“Energy prices have fallen significantly, and a strong labour market with record low unemployment has helped strengthen our economic resilience.”
Despite the positive outlook, the commission is calling on the majority of EU member states to tighten their fiscal belts after several years of major expenditures to get through the pandemic and fend off the energy crisis.
Denmark is among five countries the EU Commission is not directing this message at. With a strong Danish economy it simply encourages Denmark to maintain its current fiscal policies.
The European Union is weaning itself off of Russian diesel. Bloomberg News is reporting that the EU is leaning more and more on diesel shipments from the United States, Saudi Arabia, India, and other Asian nations. However, some of the nations Europe is turning to for diesel shipments have been identified by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air as “laundromat” countries. Those are countries that have not levied any sanctions on Russia and are now taking in more Russian oil and gas and then selling it back to Western countries that are enforcing Russian sanctions.
Energy use in Denmark has plummeted to start the year. Overall energy use was down 5.4% according to the Danish Energy Agency. Taking a closer look at the numbers it says natural gas use fell by 13.9% in the first quarter. Coal use was down 11.8% while oil use slipped by 5.7%. Even renewable energy use was down by 5.7%.
In one of the few instances of increased use, jet fuel consumption rose by 24.8% likely due to international travel returning more or less to normal. However, the agency notes even that remains lower than before the COVID pandemic.
Energinet and Evida, two Danish state-owned companies, will own and operate a network of pipelines that will some day transport hydrogen around Denmark and for export elsewhere. The plan was approved by a majority of the Danish parliament.
Danish Climate Minister Lars Aagaard hailed the move in a press release:
“We have big ambitions for the expansion of offshore wind energy, which can supply green electricity for, for example, via green hydrogen. This agreement means that we can begin laying pipes in the ground and make our goals a reality.”
There is a major effort underway across Europe, especially among countries bordering the North and Baltic seas, to rapidly expand hydrogen storage facilities and pipelines. The idea is that excess energy produced by offshore wind farms can be converted into green hydrogen, stored, and then converted back into electricity on demand.
Sweden’s economic woes continue as the Swedish kroner has fallen to a low not seen in many years. One Swedish kroner is currently worth close to half a Danish kroner (0.64) a low not seen since 2009 during the financial crisis.
Dansk Industri Chief Economist Allan Sørensen spoke to Ritzau to say this is very bad news for the already struggling Swedish economy.
“The Swedish krone is incredibly weak. It is incredibly unusual that we can buy 100 Swedish kroner for less than 65 Danish kroner. Apart from a couple of days in March 2009 during the financial crisis, the Swedish krone has not been this low for more than 40 years.”
Sweden, which is already struggling with soaring food prices, will continue to wrestle with inflation due to its weak currency as it makes import prices that much higher, costs that will be passed on to the consumer.
Swedish consumers are seeing their energy bills rise due to increases in the fees that all electricity customers pay for using the power grid. Radio Sweden says transmission fees have jumped on average about 10% across the country. But in some cases, increases are as high as 30% depending on the different utilities.
Finland continues to rapidly expand its wind energy infrastructure. Finnish wind and solar energy company Myrsky Energia has signed a €2.3 billion deal with Danish Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners that could massively increase wind energy production in Finland. The deal will see wind farms built that will produce 1,800 megawatts of wind power. At the moment, Finland’s total wind energy production capacity is 5,700 megawatts.
Myrsky Energia founder Tuomas Candelin-Palmqvist:
“Wind power forms a huge opportunity for the whole of Finland. It can bring us the same kind of prosperity as our neighbour Norway has received from its own energy reserves over the past few decades.”
Russia’s efforts to weaponize its energy exports continue to blow up in its face. Finnish state-owned energy company Gasum has terminated its pipeline natural gas procurement contract with Russia’s Gazprom according to Yle. The contract has been in place since the 1970s. Gazprom had demanded Gasum pay for gas imports in rubles in an effort to minimize European financial sanctions, a demand that was ultimately rejected.
Russian gas has not flowed into Finland since May of last year when Russia turned off the taps in an effort to bring Finland and the European Union to their knees for its support for Ukraine.
🇺🇦/ 🇷🇺 War
🇩🇰 🇳🇱 🇵🇱 🇧🇪 🇬🇧 🇵🇹 🇺🇦
It will be a team effort across Europe to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the more modern F-16 fighter jets. Acting Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen says it was the top subject in a meeting with his fellow EU defense ministers in Poland this week.
“I am very optimistic after the discussion we had today. Belgium, Great Britain, and the Netherlands have already said that they will join, but I clearly sense that several countries will also join the coalition that will train the Ukrainian pilots.”
Denmark has already begun discussions on the training program and along with the Netherlands will be the first two countries to begin training Ukrainian pilots.
Poulsen says it isn’t just pilots as Ukrainian maintenance crews will also have to be trained to take care of the more modern jets. He hopes that the training program in Denmark will start soon.
“We hope that during the summer we can get started on this activity, which will extend over a few months, most likely it will take up to six months to do this retraining from being able to fly MIG to being able to fly the F-16.”
Poulsen said the question of whether Denmark will donate F-16s to Ukraine will be answered later this year.
“There is also no doubt that, in the long term, if Ukraine is to have a much better opportunity to control their own airspace, it also requires that they get fighter jets donated, and that is the retraining process we are now embarking on. And then next fall we will come back to discuss concretely whether we should also be willing to donate some of our F-16 fighter jets to the Ukrainian army.”
Norway, Portugal, and Poland have since also joined the F-16 training program coalition.
While European countries are lining up to train Ukrainian pilots none have as of yet committed to actually donating any F-16s to Ukraine.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen didn’t say yes and she also didn’t say no when asked if Denmark will donate F-16s to Ukraine. Frederiksen was visiting an Air Force base in southern Jutland on Thursday when she was asked directly by reporters if Danish F-16s will be handed to Ukraine.
“What we are in the process of uncovering right now is whether we can start training the Ukrainians in terms of being able to fly the F-16. And it is in very, very close cooperation with a group of our allies. And that work is ongoing right now. And the decisions that must be made in the context of that process will be made along with our allies.”
Denmark was supposed to begin retiring its aging fleet of F-16s last year but that plan was put on hold when Russia invaded Ukraine sideswiping the European security situation. Denmark has purchased 27 new F-35 fighters and Danish pilots have been training on the cutting-edge warplane in the United States for months. The first seven F-35s are due to arrive in Denmark this fall to begin the process of phasing out the current F-16 fleet.
“We will probably be asked if we have enough [F-35 aircraft]. I'm not sure about that, we may well need more. But in a little while they will be on Danish soil.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the possibility of F-16 fighter jets being donated to Ukraine. In an address to the nation, Zelenskyy said a new more modern Air Force is a big step towards defeating Russia.
“We are doing everything we can to shorten the time until a result is achieved until a new and powerful Air Force with Ukrainian pilots flies in the Ukrainian skies.”
Several European countries including Norway, Denmark, and Portugal have offered to begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s. But so far no country has committed to donating any actual warplanes.
“The very first Ukrainian F-16 will be one of the strongest signals from the world that Russia can only lose. They will be weaker and increasingly isolated. The most important thing is how quickly the training and delivery [of the jets] takes place.”
Sweden’s Defense Minister has confirmed that a handful of Ukrainian pilots will get trained on and then test-fly Swedish JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets. But Minister Pål Jonson told Sweden’s TV4 that the country needs all of its planes for its national defense and there are no plans to donate any of the fighter jets to Ukraine. Jonson, who paid a visit to Ukraine on Thursday, called the training on the Gripen fighters an orientation exercise.
Russia has expelled five Swedish diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation for Sweden kicking out Russian diplomats last month. It has also ordered Sweden’s embassy in St. Petersburg to close as of September 1
Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Tobias Billström told SVT that the Swedish diplomats being sent home did nothing wrong.
“Russia has been clear that this is a retaliatory action. It is an expression of the international isolation that Russia is increasingly facing. The measures taken against Swedish personnel in Moscow are disproportionate and based on incorrect assessments.”
On April 25, Sweden expelled five Russian diplomats accusing them of activities incompatible with their diplomatic status.
Europe continues to prepare for the worst-case scenario, war. Since Russia invaded Ukraine countries across Europe have been vastly increasing defense spending and working to upgrade military weapons, armour, and technology in a near purchasing frenzy.
The latest move comes from the Czech Republic, which has approved the purchase of 246 CV90 combat vehicles made by Sweden’s BAE Systems Hägglunds. The contract is worth a cool €1.8 billion (about $2.7 billion Cdn) including maintenance and training. The company’s CEO told Radio Sweden that it is the single largest order the company has ever received.
🇳🇴 🇺🇸/ 🇷🇺
The United States is flexing its muscles in the Baltic. The largest warship in the world, the aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford, arrived in Oslo, Norway on Thursday. The aircraft carrier, and the huge number of American soldiers who have arrived with it, will take part in exercises with the Norwegian military.
Picture courtesy of Norge Forsvaret (Norwegian Armed Forces)
The Russians also took notice of the massive ship’s arrival as the Russian embassy in Oslo decried what it called an “illogical show of force” in an e-mail to Norwegian media NTB.
The Norwegian military says that a restricted area has been set up around the aircraft carrier, an area that encompasses the inner Oslo fjord. All aircraft, drones, and other marine traffic are banned from operating in the restricted area. Norwegian armed forces will be active around the aircraft carrier to enforce compliance.
Finland will send its 16th weapons shipment to Ukraine. The government decided on more military help for Ukraine and on Thursday the latest package was approved by Finland’s President.
As is its custom, Finnish authorities remain very vague about what exactly is included in its arms shipments to Ukraine and when it will arrive. It only says that this latest package includes “among other things, anti-aircraft weapons and ammunition.” The weapons package is estimated to cost about €109 million.
Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen:
“Finland will continue to support Ukraine, together with our international partners. The reimbursable value of all defense aid packages delivered by Finland to Ukraine is now 1.1 billion euros.”
Beginning on May 26, Finland will hold a huge three-day maritime military exercise. It will take place on the coast along the Gulf of Finland and in areas out at sea. More than 2,000 troops will practice rapid deployment exercises.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen will visit the White House early next month. Her upcoming visit to the United States to meet President Joe Biden revived rumours that she is seeking the top job at NATO.
Frederiksen, who has denied she is up for the job, told DR, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that she won’t be bringing her resume with her.
“I've been invited to meet President Joe Biden at the White House, and I'm looking forward to it. I am not going to enter into such discussions at all. I am the Prime Minister of Denmark, and I hope that I will continue to be so.”
Europe has already delivered 220,000 artillery shells to Ukraine, a big step towards its promise to supply the country with one million shells by next March. That is according to Acting Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen who spoke to reporters after meeting with his European counterparts this week in Poland. He said that delivering over 200,000 shells in such a short timeframe gives him confidence that the EU will meet its ammunition targets.
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