COVID: Omicron in Europe is “a tidal wave from west to east”, according to WHO

More than half of the population of the European region of the World Health Organization (WHO) could be infected with Omicron in the next two months, the United Nations agency warned on Tuesday.

Dr Hans Kluge said Omicron “represents a new west-to-east tidal wave” sweeping through the 53 countries that make up the WHO European region.

More than seven million infections were confirmed in the region in the first week of 2022, which more than doubled in a two-week period.

“As of January 10, 26 countries are reporting that more than one percent of their populations catch COVID-19 every week,” said Dr Kluge, regional director of WHO Europe.

Fifty countries have now reported cases of Omicron with the variant “quickly becoming the dominant virus in Western Europe and now spreading in the Balkans,” he added.

“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts that more than 50% of the region’s population will be infected within the next six to eight weeks,” he said.

Evidence has shown that Omicron is much more transmissible than the original strain of the virus or the Delta variant. It is also more resistant to treatment with fully vaccinated people more likely to be infected or re-infected. Kluge explained that this is because his mutations “allow him to adhere to human cells more easily.”

Vaccines remain essential for protection

There have also been 20,400 deaths in the past seven days in the WHO European region – which also covers parts of Central Asia with a total population of around 900 million. This is a slight decrease from the previous week when more than 22,600 people were killed.

The death toll remains below the numbers seen in the winter of 2021 when the Delta variant spread rapidly across Europe.

Kluge stressed that although death rates have remained stable, they “continue to be highest in countries with a high incidence of COVID-19, combined with lower vaccination.”

“Let me reiterate that the currently approved vaccines continue to offer good protection against serious illness and death, including for Omicron,” he also stressed.

There are great disparities in vaccination rates in the region.

Denmark, Portugal and Malta are leading the way with more than 80% of their population fully vaccinated. More than half of the population of 28 of the 31 EU / EEA Member States is now fully protected against the risk of serious illness.

But 20 of the 53 countries in the region have rates below 50%, with Armenia (24%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (22%) and Kyrgyzstan (15.2%) making up the bottom trio.

WHO against targeted measures of the unvaccinated

Low vaccination rates can be attributed to inequality of vaccines and difficulties in obtaining doses. The region’s five low- and low-income countries – Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Republic of Moldova and Kyrgyzstan – have all vaccinated less than a third of their populations.

But reluctance to vaccinate also explains some of the low rates, especially in eastern EU countries.

“Raising the immunization rate is a top priority,” Kluge said, arguing however that “we cannot say this is one size for all” and calling on governments to roll out targeted measures for underserved communities. .

He also stressed once again that “countries cannot get out of a wave alone” and that “it is a do-it-all approach” with measures including the wearing of face masks and social distancing still very much. necessary to control the spread of the virus.

Dr Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer, WHO Europe, said: “We do not recommend distinguishing between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups as this will go further in terms of exacerbating inequalities in the world. within the population “.

A number of European countries, including Germany, Austria and Italy, have now limited the number of public places unvaccinated people can access, such as bars, restaurants and public transport. France is expected to follow suit later this month, with President Emmanuel Macron stirring controversy when he said “the unvaccinated, I really want to bore them to the end”.

Best ‘hold our guns’ on Omicron gravity

Kluge’s address comes just days after the WHO chief, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom, cautioned against describing Omicron as “mild”, pointing out that “just like the previous variants, Omicron hospitalizes people and kills people”.

Dr Smallwood added on Tuesday that although there is a slight decrease in the severity of the infection between Omicron and Delta, this cannot fully explain the large number of milder infections.

“The reason we are seeing much milder infections in Western Europe, Israel, is due to the high rate of vaccination in our population. This immunity essentially means that we are able to tolerate a higher degree from a public health point of view. infection in the population, ”she said.

“We cannot generalize this scenario in all contexts and in countries where vaccination rates are much lower than the very high rates which are currently in Western Europe, including booster vaccination.

“We have yet to see how Omicron will work out in a situation where they are more sensitive or naive, immunologically naive, people to SARS-COV-2. And that’s where we have to hold our guns, be very careful and do not jump to conclusions about the change in strategy and the spread of COVID, ”she warned.

Mary I. Bruner