At a virtual press conference, the organisation's regional director, Hans Kluge, said that Europe was "at a turning point" in the pandemic, arguing that "science, politics, technology and values must form a united front to push back this persistent and elusive virus".

"For some time, we will have to do more than we have done and intensify social and public health measures. These are the basic measures that we are all familiar with that need to be identified to reduce the transmission of the virus and reduce the pressure on hospitals," he said.

These are "widespread use of masks, limiting the number of people in gatherings, physical distance," and increasing the number of people vaccinated, along with strengthening testing, he listed.

The new variant of SARS-CoV-2 detected in the United Kingdom is "cause for alarm" because of its greater contagious capacity. "Without an increase in control to reduce the rate [of new contagions] there will be more impact on health facilities which are already under pressure," Hans Kluge stressed.

This variant, which could "over time replace the circulating strains" of the new coronavirus, is already circulating in 22 countries in the European region and does not show "significant changes in the severity" of the disease it causes nor is it more dangerous for children, he said.

For now, data show that "almost half" of the 53 countries covered by the WHO's European department have an incidence of more than 150 cases per 100,000 population over the past seven days and in a quarter of the countries the number of cases has increased by 10 per cent over the past two weeks.

"These figures need to be understood with some caution," argued Hans Kluge, noting that "the impact of the holiday season, with family gatherings, communities and relaxation of physical distance and wearing masks cannot yet be determined.

As the number of tests conducted also declined in the past weeks, the current picture of the course of the pandemic may be incomplete, he added.

Hans Kluge indicated that in the 27 countries that share data in the excess mortality monitoring mechanism, there were 313,000 more deaths in 2020 than the average of previous years, representing an increase of 300 percent over 2018 and almost 500 percent over 2019.