20th January 2022
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WHO: Over 50% of EU will be infected within two months, ‘too early to call it endemic’

Latest: Coronavirus in Spain figures (18 Jan)

More than half the number of citizens in Europe are on course to contract the Omicron Coronavirus variant within the next two months, if infections continue at current rates, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a press conference, WHO’s regional director Hans Kluge said that the Omicron variant represented a ‘new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across’ the European region.

‘At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,’ Kluge told reporters.

The WHO’s European region comprises 53 countries and territories including several in Central Asia, and Kluge noted that 50 of them had confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

According to the WHO, 26 of those countries reported that over 1% of their populations were ‘catching Covid-19 each week’ as of 10 January, and that the region had seen over seven million new cases reported in the first week of 2022 alone.

Kluge said the ‘unprecedented scale of transmission’ now meant countries were seeing rising hospitalisations from Covid-19, but added that mortality rates were still stable.

The wave ‘is challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed, and threatens to overwhelm in many more,’ Kluge said.

Referencing data collected over the last few weeks, he said the variant was confirmed to be 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’.

Kluge also stressed, however, that ‘approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron’.

drive-through vaccination centre
Library image of a drive-through vaccination centre in Italy. (EC.Europa.eu)

Despite reports of a higher degree of asymptomatic cases and lower proportion of hospitalisations for Omicron cases, the WHO said it was too early to treat the disease as endemic — meaning a regularly occurring milder disease like the flu.

On Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had said in a radio interview that the EU should soon start to consider treating Covid as an ‘endemic illness’ and not a pandemic, due to falling death rates and vaccination protection. ALSO READ: Pedro Sánchez calls for EU debate to consider treating Covid as ‘endemic illness’

However, on Tuesday WHO senior emergencies officer Catherine Smallwood told reporters that ‘we still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly and posing quite new challenges … so we’re certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic’. 

‘This virus, as we know, has surprised us more than once … The prime aspirational goal for 2022 is to stabilise the pandemic,’ Kluge concluded.

Click here to read the full statement from Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

Click here for all our reports on: Coronavirus in Spain

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