2nd Dec 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)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

WHO 'good news': more proof of milder Omicron symptoms

A World Health Organisation official said hospitalisations and death rates linked to the spread of Omicron tend to be lower than with previous strains. The more transmissible variant appears to affect mostly the upper respiratory tract, causing milder symptoms.

Christmas travel disrupted by Omicron variant

The spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant of coronavirus has triggered a flurry of flight cancellations, hampering Christmas plans for millions of people.

EU leaders divided over Omicron travel rules

EU leaders failed to guarantee a coordinated approach to travel measures for the Christmas holiday season during their summit meeting. Instead they stressed that boosters shots are "crucial" and "urgent" to curb the new wave of Covid-19 infections.

Record-breaking Omicron wave sweeps across Europe

The record numbers reflect those registered by health authorities, and does not include self-tests or infected people who develop no symptoms, and are not aware of their contagiousness.

Dutch mayors protest strict lockdown measures

Thirty Dutch mayors have asked the national government to rethink its corona pandemic measures amid protests from museums and cultural centres against continued lockdown.


'Pay or okay?' — Facebook & Instagram vs the EU

Since last week, Mark Zuckerberg's Meta corporation is forcing its European users to either accept their intrusive privacy practices — or pay €156 per year to access Facebook and Instagram without tracking advertising.


My experience trying to negotiate with Uber

After working with people in unusual employment situations for a decade, I thought I had seen it all as a union organiser. Then I began dealing with Uber.

Latest News

  1. Israel's EU ambassador: 'No clean way to do this operation'
  2. Brussels denies having no 'concern' on Spain's amnesty law
  3. Dubai's COP28 — a view from the ground
  4. Germany moves to criminalise NGO search-and-rescue missions
  5. Israel recalls ambassador to Spain in new diplomatic spat
  6. Migrant return bill 'obstructed' as EU states mull new position
  7. Paris and Berlin key to including rape in gender-violence directive
  8. What are the big money debates at COP28 UN climate summit?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  3. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  4. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?
  5. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  6. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  3. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  4. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch
  6. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us