European countries need to increase vigilance for new strains of the coronavirus amid a rise in cases, the head of the WHO's European office says, as the leaders of Israel, Austria and Denmark announce a vaccine alliance.
"Last week, new cases of COVID-19 in Europe rose 9 per cent to just above 1 million. This brought a promising six week decline in new cases to an end," Hans Kluge of the Copenhagen-based agency said.
He noted that more than half of the 53 countries in the region have registered a rise in new infections.
"We need to suppress the spread of the virus everywhere, using what we know works," he said, citing the need to test, isolate and trace cases as well as continue to vaccinate.
According to the WHO office, a strain initially identified in the UK has been reported in 43 countries in the region, a strain first detected in South Africa has been found in 26 countries while 15 countries in the region have recorded cases linked to a strain found in Brazil and Japan.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Israel, Austria and Denmark stood side-by-side on Thursday in Jerusalem to officially announce they were setting up a COVID-19 vaccine alliance.
They will establish a joint fund to further vaccine research and production cooperation, with the aim of speeding up the vaccine supply chain.
While Israel has become a world leader in coronavirus vaccinations, EU countries like Austria and Denmark have been frustrated by the glacial pace of the bloc's efforts to get jabs in arms.
"This is a special day when two dynamic European leaders come together to Jerusalem to discuss together how we continue the battle against COVID," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said alongside Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
"Once we get over this cycle of the disease, we have no guarantee that it won't come back. Nobody knows how long these vaccines will hold up," Netanyahu said of the threat posed by coronavirus mutations that the joint vaccine venture hopes to tackle.
The two European heads of government also visited Israel to learn about the "green passport" introduced there, which allows vaccinated and recovered people access to leisure centres and other attractions.
The visit to Israel has raised eyebrows in the EU.
Kurz said before leaving that Austria could no longer rely solely on the EU for coronavirus vaccine procurement, expressing exasperation at the speed of the bloc's vaccine approval and subsequent supply problems.
Fredriksen meanwhile denied that Denmark's work with Israel signalled a break in cooperation with the EU.
Australian Associated Press