31st May 2023

WHO: Omicron to infect over half of Europeans in two months

  • The World Health Organization said it is too early to consider Covid an 'endemic' virus - since it is not settling into a stable and predictive transmission (Photo: World Bank / Henitsoa Rafalia)
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Omicron represents "a new west-to-east tidal wave" that is likely to infect more than half of the population living in Europe within the next two months, increasing the burden on healthcare systems across the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday (11 January).

Omicron, first identified in South Africa in November, is quickly becoming the dominant variant in western Europe and is now also spreading in the Balkans.

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The rate of infections in the first week of 2022 has doubled compared to the previous two weeks, with more than one percent of the population in 26 countries catching Covid-19 each week.

"At this rate, more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks," WHO Europe's regional director Hans Kluge told a press briefing.

He added that "the unprecedented scale of transmission" fuelled by the spread of this highly-transmissible variant is triggering a surge in hospital admissions, which is challenging healthcare systems across the continent.

Mortality, meanwhile, remains stable since death rates linked to Omicron appear to be lower than with previous strains.

But fatalities continue to be high in those countries with the highest number of infections and low vaccine-uptake.

Nevertheless, existing approved vaccines continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death, including from Omicron, said Kluge.

In Denmark, for example, where Omicron infections represent the majority of new daily cases, hospital admissions for unvaccinated patients were six times higher than those who had received the shot during the week of Christmas.

Kluge said he was "deeply concerned" that Omicron moves east "where levels of vaccination uptake are lower, and where we will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated".

He added that countries where the Omicron surge has already begun should try to minimise disruption to health systems and essential services.

"This means prioritising vulnerable people for primary course and booster doses, advising them to avoid closed, crowded spaces, and offering the possibility to work remotely wherever possible until the infection surge passes," he said.

He also argued that it would be necessary to step up primary care and that PCR testing should be prioritised for individuals who are at risk of developing severe disease, health and other critical workers as well as inpatients in health facilities or long-term care facilities.

Varying isolation periods

As many countries in the EU and beyond move towards shorter quarantine and isolation periods, Kluge said that such decision should be taken "only when considered essential to preserve critical service continuity" — and in combination with negative Covid-19 tests.

"Any decisions to do so must be taken with careful weighing of the risks and benefits of doing so," he warned.

In the EU, the isolation period ranges from seven to 14 days, depending on the country and severity of the symptoms developed by the patient.

But many member states — including Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Greece, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia — have recently shortened such periods amid fears of shortages of critical workers calling in sick.

This follows recent guidance by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to shorten periods of isolation in case of "high and extreme pressure" on healthcare systems and other critical services.

On Monday, experts in the EU Health Security Committee agreed to a common approach for isolation measures for positive Covid-19 cases and those who have been in high-risk contact with somebody infected.

Like the flu?

For his part, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday said that his government has been working for several weeks on a plan for a new Covid-19 monitoring system that would be similar to the one that has been used for years for the flu.

He argued that it was time to consider whether coronavirus should be treated as an 'endemic illness' rather than a pandemic, as the world faces the third pandemic year.

However, according to WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, that situation is still "a way off" since endemicity assumes that there is a stable and predictable transmission.

"We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges. We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic," Smallwood said.

"It may become endemic in due course, but pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage," she added.

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