Europeans should wear masks at family gatherings over Christmas amid a spike in coronavirus cases in the region, the World Health Organization has advised.
“Despite some fragile progress, COVID-19 transmission across the European region remains widespread and intense,” the WHO said, in advice to individuals, communities and governments for the winter holidays posted on its website on Wednesday.
“There is a high risk of further resurgence in the first weeks and months of 2021,” it added.
Read: Italy reclaims record as European country with highest COVID-19 death toll
Gatherings should be held outside if possible, and participants should wear masks and maintain physical distancing, the WHO said. “It may feel awkward to wear masks and practice physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy.”
“It may feel awkward to wear masks and practice physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy.”
The advice comes as Europe’s medicines regulator said it had accelerated the approval process of the vaccine being developed by U.S. drug company Pfizer
and its German partner BioNTech
paving the way for inoculations to start in the region before the end of the year.
The European Medicines Agency, or EMA, said in a statement late on Tuesday that it will meet on Dec. 21, instead of Dec. 29, to decide whether to approve the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine, after receiving additional data it had requested from the companies.
Pressure has been mounting on the EMA to shorten its approval process amid a surge in coronavirus cases and tougher lockdown measures in the 27-nation bloc.
The Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine has already been authorized for use in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada, and vaccine distribution has started in those countries.
Read: Here’s when most Americans will be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine
On Thursday, Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, who has been pushing the EMA for approval before Christmas, said all European Union member states plan to start vaccinations against COVID-19 from Dec. 27.
“In Germany we will start, if the approval comes as planned, on Dec. 27. The other countries in the EU want to be able to start and want to start from Dec. 27,” said Spahn, ahead of an online meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and executives from BioNTech, Reuters reported.
Germany has imposed tougher lockdown measures, shutting schools and nonessential businesses until Jan. 10 to try to curb the rise in coronavirus infections. On Tuesday, the Robert Koch Institute said the country recorded 14,432 new confirmed cases and 500 new deaths.
“It’s Europe’s moment,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a tweet on Thursday. “On 27, 28 and 29 December vaccination will start across the EU,” she added.
Earlier on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for COVID-19, the Élysée Palace said, as the French ministry of health said the number of coronavirus cases in the country rose by 17,615 in the past 24 hours, bringing the overall figure to 2.4 million cases in total, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
The EMA said on Tuesday that it had scheduled the Dec. 21 emergency meeting of its human-medicines committee to conclude, “if possible,” its evaluation of the vaccine. It added that the meeting for Dec. 29 will be “maintained if needed.”
Once the committee recommends the shot, the European Commission will fast track its procedures to rule on approval “within days,” the EMA said.
However, it cautioned that it will only grant approval “once the data on the quality, safety and effectiveness of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete to determine whether the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks.”
Read: EU strikes deal with Moderna to supply up to 160 million COVID vaccine shots
In November, the EU agreed a deal to buy up to 160 million doses of the vaccine candidate being developed by U.S. biotech Moderna
bringing the bloc’s potential stockpile of COVID-19 shots up to almost 2 billion.