The World Health Organization's European branch has said more needed to be done to deal with the alarming situation brought on by the variant of the coronavirus discovered recently in southeast England.

Speaking at a press conference, the WHO's regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, called the current situation "a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic," as Europe was both challenged by surging cases and new strains of the virus causing Covid-19.

"This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries," Mr Kluge said, referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK.

While it is natural for viruses to change over time and the variant is not believed to cause more severe symptoms, its "increased transmissibility," means it still raises concern, according to WHO Europe.

"Without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurised health facilities," he said.

The measures proposed by Mr Kluge were those "with which we are all familiar," listing the adherence to generalised mask wearing, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distance and hand washing as prudent but in need of being intensified.

These measures coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, "will work if we all get involved," Mr Kluge said.

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The WHO's European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, and 22 countries in the region have recorded cases of the new variant.

According to the organisation's estimates, the new strain could replace others across the region.

Europe has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to WHO's monitoring. 

WHO Europe also estimates that excess mortality in 2020 was five times that of 2019 and three times that of 2018.

WHO urges safe flexibility on timing of vaccine doses

European countries rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine should be flexible on the time between the first and second doses, Mr Kluge said.

His comments come as some countries, including Britain, are seeking to counter low vaccine supplies by extending the gap between first and second doses to up to 12 weeks, and by considering lower volume doses of some shots.

Mr Kluge said it was important to strike a balance between making the most of limited supplies and protecting as many people as possible.

"It is important that such a decision represents a safe compromise between the limited global production capacity at the moment, and the imperative for governments to protect as many people as possible while reducing the burden of any subsequent wave on the health systems," he said.

Proposals to prolong the gap between the first and second dose have generated fierce debate among scientists.

Pfizer andBioNTech have warned they have no evidence their vaccine would continue to be protective if the second dose was given more than 21 days after the first.

The EU gave emergency use approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot two weeks ago and hundreds of thousands of Europeans have received it since the roll-out began just over a week ago.

Britain, which approved the shot in December, has administered more than a million doses of the vaccine in just under a month.

The European Union has secured 200 million doses and has taken up an option for another 100 million. It is also in talks for a new order of 50 to 100 million doses, EU officials said earlier this week.