Europe has become the epicentre of the pandemic again, prompting some governments to consider re-imposing unpopular lockdowns in the run-up to Christmas and stirring debate over whether vaccines alone are enough to tame COVID-19.

The fresh concerns over what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described on Friday as “storm clouds” over Europe come as successful inoculation  campaigns have plateaued ahead of the winter months and flu season.

Europe accounts for more than half of the average 7-day infections globally and about half of latest deaths, according to a Reuters tally, the highest levels since April last year when the virus was at its initial peak in Italy.

About 65% of the population of the European Economic Area  which includes the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway  have received two doses, according to EU data, but the pace has slowed in recent months.

Take-up in southern European countries is around 80%, but hesitancy has hampered rollout in central and eastern Europe and Russia, leading to outbreaks that could overwhelm healthcare.

Germany, France and the Netherlands are also experiencing a surge in infections, showing the challenge even for governments with high acceptance rates.

To be sure, hospitalisations and deaths are much lower than a year ago and big variations by country in use of vaccines and boosters  as well as measures like social distancing make it hard to draw conclusions for the whole region.

The World Health Organization`s report for the week to November 7 showed that Europe, including Russia, was the only region to record a rise in cases, up 7%, while other areas reported declines or stable trends.

Austria`s government is likely to decide on Sunday to impose a lockdown on people who are not vaccinated, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday.

The EU`s medicines regulator is also evaluating the use of Pfizer and BioNTech`s vaccine in 5 to 11-year-olds. Several pointed to Israel as an example of good practice: in addition to inoculations, it has reinforced mask wearing and introduced vaccine passports after cases spiked a few months ago.

Measures such as spacing, masks and vaccine mandates for indoor venues are essential, said Antonella Viola, professor of immunology at Italy`s University of Padua.

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