What does the European covid spring wave really tell us?
In recent weeks, several European countries have seen a strong covid spring wave, driven by omicron subvariant BA.2, which has reached record new infection rates. After the second delta wave in November/December and the first omicron wave in January/February, this is already the third major covid wave in Europe since the beginning of the winter season.
There have been various claims about the supposed causes and implications of this wave, both by ‘health authorities’ and by skeptics, but many of these claims do not stand up to scrutiny.
The WHO and many other supposed health authorities have claimed that the rise in infections is the result of European countries “having lifted coronavirus restrictions too soon”. But this is not the case, as several counter-examples show: infections have risen just as strongly in Germany, which still has one of the strictest covid policies in the world (including N95 mask mandates in some places); in France and several other countries, infections started to increase before restrictions were lifted; in Denmark and some other countries, infections decreased shortly after restrictions were lifted; in Switzerland and the Netherlands, infections have already peaked without any new restrictions.
Thus, in stark contrast to claims by the WHO and many media outlets, the European spring wave once again shows that most “covid measures” have had no impact on infections. Most recently, a very large Spanish school study confirmed that “mask mandates in schools were not associated with lower SARS-CoV-2 incidence or transmission.”
Some journalists have claimed that the European spring wave shows that the novel coronavirus is not in fact a seasonal virus. But this assertion is mistaken, too, as coronavirus season in the northern hemisphere lasts until the end of April (see chart below). In 2018, one of the strongest seasonal influenza waves of recent years in Europe occurred no earlier than March. It is true that some coronavirus variants, notably the delta variant, have managed to launch a summer wave (likely due to their transmission advantage), but this was also the case with the 2009 “swine flu” virus (which has followed a seasonal pattern ever since). Finally, winter seasonality of respiratory viruses is observed only in northern and southern temperate latitude zones, whereas regions closer to the equator either show no seasonality or follow a different pattern (e.g. driven by wet season).
Thus, the European spring wave does not at all contradict the generally seasonal character of the novel coronavirus.
3) Population immunity
Some analysts have claimed that the European omicron spring wave shows that there will never be substantial population immunity against the novel coronavirus. But the situation is more complex than this. Prior to the arrival of the omicron variant, natural immunity provided robust and long-lasting protection against reinfection; this was best illustrated by the return of influenza in countries that had achieved a high natural immunity rate against SARS-CoV-2 (e.g. India, Sweden and Brazil). In contrast, vaccination doesn’t confer mucosal immunity; thus, vaccination cannot protect against infection for more than a few months and cannot contribute to population immunity.
The arrival of the omicron variant has changed this situation because antibodies from prior infection have much lower neutralizing power against omicron (immune escape), which is why omicron achieves a much higher rate of reinfection. In fact, omicron may almost be considered a new SARS-CoV-2 serotype (similar to different influenza virus serotypes). However, the emergence of omicron was almost certainly not a natural (evolutionary) phenomenon, but the result of yet another “lab leak” related to covid vaccine research that targeted all known immune escape mutations.
Thus, natural infection, but not vaccination, did achieve some degree of population immunity, but this achievement was undone by the arrival of the omicron variant. It is also clear that against most respiratory viruses, there is no permanent infection immunity, both because of virus mutations and because of waning mucosal immunity. Nevertheless, one may assume that infection will provide substantial long-term protection against severe disease.
4) Negative vaccine effectiveness
Some skeptics have argued that the European omicron spring wave only affects highly vaccinated countries or that vaccination has negative effectiveness against infection. This claim was first made during the European delta wave in the summer of 2021. The claim was wrong back then and it is still wrong now: in reality, coronavirus waves have moved from Western Europe (high vaccination rate) to Eastern Europe (lower vaccination rate), and they have caused far higher mortality in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, a fact ignored by many ardent vaccine skeptics. This mysterious west-east European transmission pattern has already been known from influenza waves.
There is also no negative vaccine effectiveness against infection. It is true that in most countries, vaccinated people show higher infection rates than unvaccinated people (negating the case for ‘vaccine passes’), but this is because for several months, vaccinated people enjoyed lower infection rates and they are now “catching up” with unvaccinated people, or, more precisely, with recovered people, who enjoy the most durable immunity. A comparison between vaccinated and unvaccinated people that excludes recovered people shows that vaccination and even booster vaccination provides zero protection against omicron infection, which is of course bad enough (see chart below). One exception to this is freshly vaccinated or boostered people, who indeed may experience a temporarily increased risk of infection (post-vaccination spike).
Thus, while the omicron spring wave doesn’t just affect highly vaccinated countries, vaccination doesn’t provide protection against infection, either. This is why some highly vaccinated countries recently once again reported some of the highest infection rates in the world (e.g. South Korea and Austria, both of which have very high testing rates). The much more thorny question of vaccine protection against severe disease and death will be discussed in a separate analysis. At any rate, it looks like the omicron BA.2 wave will not cause major mortality spikes in European countries.
1) The European omicron BA.2 spring wave
2) Germany, Austria, Denmark, France
3) Vaccination: No protection against infection (recovered people excluded)
4) Seasonality of respiratory viruses
HCoV = human coronaviruses
5) Influenza: Sasonality and dependency on latitude