Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
More than 50 per cent of people in Europe will have contracted the Omicron variant within two months, the World Health Organisation has said.
WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge gave a warning of a “new west-to-east tidal wave” sweeping across the region amid the spread of the highly infectious variant of Covid-19.
It has forced countries around the world to reintroduce or harden restrictions in a bid to tackle the spread, as many hospitals in Europe struggle to cope with an influx of new patients.
At the current rate, Dr Kluge said, it is forecast that “more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks”.
The WHO's Europe region comprises 53 countries and territories including several in Central Asia. Dr Kluge said that 50 of them had confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
He said there had been seven million new cases of Omicron across Europe in the first week of January alone.
“I am also deeply concerned that as the variant moves east, we have yet to see its full impact in countries where levels of vaccination uptake are lower and where we will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated,” he added.
Dr Kluge said the wave was “challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed, and threatens to overwhelm in many more".
Referring to data collected over the last few weeks, Dr Kluge said Omicron was clearly more transmissible and “the mutations it has enable it to adhere to human cells more easily, and it can infect even those who have been previously infected or vaccinated.”
But he added that the available Covid vaccines do “provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron”.
The EU's drug regulator however has cautioned that more data is needed to understand how effective the current raft of vaccines are on Omicron.
Dr Kluge warned countries not yet hit by the surge of the variant that “there is a closing window of opportunity to act now and plan for contingencies".
Given how fast Omicron has spread, he said the WHO urged countries “to mandate the use of high quality masks in closed and indoor settings and ensure that vulnerable individuals have access to them, that people are supported to get their full vaccine series and booster dose as soon as it becomes available, making sure health workers and other essential workers have early access to booster doses to keep services going".
Governments have also embarked on campaigns to urge people to get their booster shots to add another layer of protection. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whose country has introduced numerous social restrictions for the unvaccinated, said: “Most of the problems we are facing today depend on the fact that there are unvaccinated people.”
British and Spanish officials are among those who have suggested that Covid-19 may soon be treated as an endemic illness, similar to the flu. Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said it may be time to change how it tracks the evolution of the virus to instead use a method similar to flu, because its lethality has fallen.
But the WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, Dr Catherine Smallwood, said “we’re still a way off” from describing Covid-19 as endemic.
She said there was still a large amount of uncertainty and the virus was evolving quickly and posing new challenges.
“Endemicity assumes that, first of all, this stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels, and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” said Dr Smallwood.
“But what we're seeing at the moment coming into 2022 is nowhere near that.""
“So we're certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic.”
Speaking at a WHO media briefing Dr Smallwood said Covid-19 may become endemic in due course, but “pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage”.
Reaching the endemic stage depended on an efficient response and widespread, equitable vaccine uptake, she added.
Meanwhile, one expert has suggested that the UK is the closest that any country is in the Northern Hemisphere to exiting the pandemic.
“In general, now, the countries that we know best in the Northern Hemisphere have varying stages of the pandemic,” Professor David Heymann, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told a webinar organised by the Chatham House think tank.
“And probably, in the UK, it’s the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic if it isn’t already out of the pandemic and having the disease as endemic as the other four coronaviruses.”
He pointed to recent government data that 95 per cent of England, and a little less in the rest of the UK, had an antibody to the infection by either catching the virus or being vaccinated. “That antibody is keeping the virus at bay. And it’s now functioning more like an endemic coronavirus than one that is a pandemic,” he said, adding that the “majority” in intensive care were unvaccinated.
Prof Heymann also predicted that Covid would resurge at points in the future, as would variants — although to what extent is unclear. “We’re fortunate in that we have vaccines which can be modified very rapidly, and put into production very rapidly to deal with an escapee,” he added.
But, for the global pandemic to be regarded as over, Prof Heymann said a scenario would not happen “until all countries have completed what they need to do to make this virus more tame and to become endemic”.
Worldwide, 5.5 million deaths have been associated with Covid-19.
The WHO says the real toll may be two to three times that figure.