Europeans should wear masks at family gatherings over Christmas as the number of coronavirus cases in the region has soared, the World Health Organization has advised.
"Despite some fragile progress, the transmission of COVID-19 remains widespread and intense across the European region," the WHO advised individuals, communities and governments for the winter holidays, published on its website on Wednesday.
"There is a high risk of further resurgence in the first weeks and months of 2021," he added.
Read: Italy recovers record as European country with the highest COVID-19 count
Meetings should be held outdoors whenever possible, and participants should wear masks and physically distance themselves, the WHO said. "It may be uncomfortable to wear masks and exercise physical distance when you are with friends and family, but it goes a long way towards keeping everyone safe and healthy."
"It may be uncomfortable to wear masks and exercise physical distance when you are with friends and family, but it goes a long way towards keeping everyone safe and healthy."
The council comes as the European Medicines Agency announced it had accelerated the approval process for the vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical company Pfizer
and its German partner BioNTech
Paving the way for vaccinations in the region before the end of the year.
The European Medicines Agency [EMA] said in a statement late Tuesday that it will meet on December 21st instead of December 29th to decide whether to approve the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine after providing additional data which she received from the company.
Pressure on the EMA to shorten its approval process has increased as the number of coronavirus cases has risen and blocking measures in the 27-nation bloc have been tightened.
Pfizer BioNTech vaccine has already been approved for use in the UK, US and Canada and vaccine sales have started in those countries.
Read: This is where most Americans can get a COVID-19 vaccine
Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn, who asked the EMA for approval before Christmas, said on Thursday that all member states of the European Union plan to start vaccinating against COVID-19 from December 27th.
"In Germany, we will start on December 27th, if the approval goes as planned. The other countries in the EU want to be able to start from December 27th," said Spahn before an online meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel and BioNTech executives reported Reuters.
Germany has imposed stricter lockdown measures and closed schools and non-essential businesses through January 10 to curb the surge in coronavirus infections. On Tuesday, the Robert Koch Institute said the country had 14,432 new confirmed cases and 500 new deaths.
"It's Europe's moment," said the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a tweet on Thursday. "Vaccination will begin across the EU on December 27th, 28th and 29th," she added.
Earlier Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron had tested positive for COVID-19, the Élysée Palace said as the French Ministry of Health said the number of coronavirus cases in the country had increased by 17,615 in the past 24 hours, making a total of 2.4 corresponds to a total of millions of cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
The EMA said Tuesday that it had scheduled the emergency meeting of its Human Medicines Committee on December 21st to complete the vaccine evaluation "if possible." It added that the December 29 meeting "will be held if necessary".
Once the committee recommends the shot, the European Commission will expedite its approval decision process "within days," the EMA said.
However, it was pointed out that approval would not be granted until "data on the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete to determine whether the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks".
Read: EU strikes negotiate with Moderna to deliver up to 160 million COVID vaccine shots
In November, the EU agreed to purchase up to 160 million doses of the vaccine candidate developed by US biotechnology Moderna
The block's potential inventory of COVID-19 shots increased to nearly 2 billion.