Germany and France were preparing to announce restrictions approaching the level of last spring's blanket lockdowns on Wednesday as COVID deaths across Europe rose almost 40% in a week, while financial markets tumbled on fears of the likely economic costs.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to meet state premiers in a conference call to discuss closing restaurants and bars but keeping schools and nurseries open, while allowing people to go out in public only with members of their own household.
In France, which has seen more than 50,000 new cases a day, President Emmanuel Macron will give a televised address in the evening and is expected to announce further curbs on movement following the curfew measures introduced across much of the country last week.
News television BFM TV reported that the government was considering a month-long lockdown from midnight on Thursday, but there was no confirmation from Macron's office.
The measures, following similar moves in Italy and Spain, are expected to leave schools and most businesses working and would be less severe than the near-total lockdowns imposed at the start of the crisis in March and April.
But the economic cost is likely to be heavy, wiping out the fragile signs of recovery seen over the summer and raising the prospect of a double-dip recession. European stock markets hit their lowest levels since June on Wednesday while the euro fell against the dollar.
While leaders have been desperate to avoid the crippling cost of lockdowns, the new measures reflect mounting alarm at the galloping pace of the pandemic from Spain, France and Germany to Russia, Poland and Bulgaria.
"If we wait until the intensive care units are full, it will be too late," said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, whose country has already taken in patients from its neighbour the Netherlands, where hospitals have reached their limits.
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said on Wednesday that hospital beds were at 90% of capacity in 16 regions of the country, while officials have warned that even well-equipped health systems like those in France and Switzerland could reach breaking point within days.
Hopes that new treatments might curb the spread were dented when the head of Britain's vaccine procurement task force said that a fully effective vaccine may never be developed and that early versions were likely to be imperfect.
The European Commission called on European governments to step up their response and coordinate testing strategies and said there was still time to hold back the disease.
"The situation is very serious, but we can still slow down the spread of the virus if everybody takes responsibility," Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.
The latest figures from the World Health Organization on Tuesday showed Europe reported 1.3 million new cases in the past seven days, nearly half the 2.9 million reported worldwide, with over 11,700 deaths, a 37% jump over the previous week.
The United States, which saw more than 500,000 cases over the past week, has seen record daily infections and, while many countries in Asia have largely brought the disease under control, China reported 42 new cases on Tuesday, its highest daily toll in more than two months.
So far, more than 42 million cases and more than 1.1 million deaths have been recorded worldwide from the virus, which was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year.
While surveys in several countries show many want strict controls to halt the spread of the disease, the broad climate of public support for governments seen in the first wave of the pandemic has increasingly evaporated.
Governments across Europe have been under fire for a lack of coordination and for failing to use a lull in cases over the summer to bolster defences, leaving hospitals unprepared and forcing people on to packed public transport to get to work.
"The relaxation of applied measures during the summer months was not always accompanied by steps to build up sufficient response capacity," the European Commission said on Wednesday.
Italy, which pledged more than 5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in new support measures for businesses hit by the latest restrictions, has seen repeated clashes between police and protesters in cities from Naples to Turin as well as bitter criticism from restaurant owners and business groups.
As similar measures are imposed elsewhere, business groups have sounded the alarm.
Germany's BGA, a lobby group for the services sector, said restaurant closures would inflict a "death blow" on many businesses and called instead for tighter measures to restrict contagion in people's homes.