LONDON — Greater than half of individuals in Europe may very well be contaminated with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus within the subsequent six to eight weeks, the World Well being Group warned on Tuesday, amid “a brand new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping throughout the area.”
“The area noticed over seven million circumstances of Covid-19 within the first week of 2022, greater than doubling over a two-week interval,” Hans Kluge, the company’s regional director for Europe, stated at a information convention.
Whereas coronavirus vaccines stay remarkably efficient at stopping extreme sickness and demise, the company cautioned in opposition to treating the virus just like the seasonal flu, since a lot stays unknown — significantly concerning the severity of the illness in areas with lower vaccination rates, such as Eastern Europe.
The W.H.O. has cautioned for months that booster shots could worsen vaccine equity world wide, however Dr. Kluge stated on Tuesday that they might play a necessary function in defending probably the most weak individuals from extreme illness and must also be used to guard well being staff and different important staff, together with academics.
Since Omicron was first detected in late November, it has torn throughout the planet at a tempo unseen throughout two years of the pandemic. As associates, co-workers and relations take a look at optimistic, the truth that the virus is transferring shortly and broadly has been a defining function of this wave of an infection.
However the steep rise that Mr. Kluge cited, primarily based on forecasts by the Institute for Well being Metrics and Analysis, is a stark paradigm shift. Though the institute’s fashions have often been criticized by consultants, it’s clear that the virus is spreading shortly. Even when many people avoid severe illness, the virus guarantees to trigger societal disruption throughout the continent.
Whereas a lot of the general public dialogue has revolved round whether or not this was the second when governments ought to shift insurance policies and restrictions to deal with the coronavirus as an endemic illness — eradicating most restrictions and permitting individuals to handle threat in a means just like the best way they do with influenza — the W.H.O. stated it was too early to name this virus endemic.
Catherine Smallwood, a W.H.O. senior emergencies officer, stated that one of many key components in declaring the virus to be endemic was some sense of predictability.
“We’re nonetheless methods off,” she stated. “We nonetheless have an enormous quantity of uncertainty.”
Dr. Kluge added that there have been just too many unknown components, together with precisely how extreme Omicron is for unvaccinated individuals and the way excessive the chance is of an infection resulting in “lengthy Covid” signs.
“I’m additionally deeply involved that because the variant strikes east, now we have but to see its full impression in nations the place ranges of vaccination uptake are decrease, and the place we’ll see extra extreme illness within the unvaccinated,” he stated.
Nations within the Balkans and Japanese Europe, the place Omicron is simply beginning to unfold broadly, have a lot decrease charges of vaccination than these in Western Europe.
Regardless of the widespread stage of an infection, Dr. Kluge cited information from Denmark suggesting how efficient vaccines stay. The hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people within the newest wave was “sixfold greater than for many who had been absolutely vaccinated within the week over Christmas,” he stated.
“Permit me to reiterate that the at the moment authorized vaccines do proceed to offer good safety in opposition to extreme illness and demise, together with for Omicron,” he stated. “However due to the unprecedented scale of transmission, we are actually seeing rising Covid-19 hospitalizations. It’s difficult well being techniques and repair supply in lots of nations the place Omicron has unfold at pace and threatens to overwhelm in lots of extra.”
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He added: “For nations not but hit with the Omicron surge, there’s a closing window to behave now and plan for contingencies.”
One of many central struggles of governments throughout Europe has been making an attempt to maintain colleges open, and Dr. Kluge described these efforts as important.
“Colleges ought to be the final locations to shut and the primary to reopen,” he stated, though he added that “the numbers of contaminated individuals are going to be so excessive in lots of locations that colleges in lots of nations are going to be unable to maintain all courses open” due to sickness and workers shortages.
An instance of that strain was obvious this week in France, the place 10,452 courses had been canceled on Monday, in keeping with the federal government. Prime Minister Jean Castex stated that going ahead, schoolchildren within the nation could be allowed to do self-tests as an alternative of P.C.R. assessments if one among their classmates examined optimistic, in an try to maintain the training system functioning.
“If we had been to close down courses as quickly as there may be one first case, taking into account the explosion of Omicron, all French colleges could be closed in a matter of days,” Mr. Castex instructed France 2 tv.
However as nations think about shortening isolation intervals for individuals who take a look at optimistic to restrict the impact on important companies, Dr. Kluge stated that “any resolution to shorten advisable quarantine or isolation intervals ought to be taken together with destructive Covid-19 assessments and solely when thought of important to protect crucial service continuity.”