The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that half of the people living in Europe could catch the new and more transmissible Omicron strain of the coronavirus in the next two months in a projection released on Tuesday.
Omicron represents a tidal wave sweeping across the European region from west to east, adding to the surge of cases of the Delta strain seen by countries in late 2021, WHO Regional Director Hans Kluge told an online press conference.
Omicron is fast becoming the dominant variant in western Europe and is now spreading to the Balkans, Kluge said.
More than 50% of the region's population could be infected within the next six to eight weeks, given the current pace at which the variant is spreading, according to the IHME research institute based on model calculations.
Modelling for the European Region suggests that a peak of more than 12 million infections per day would be reached by mid-January, although nation by nation, these peaks are expected to vary considerably, with later peaks in Central Asia, the institute said in a report two days ago.
There have been more than 7 million new cases of the Omicron strain in the first week of 2022 alone in the European region, more than doubling in a two-week period, Kluge said.
Stable mortality rates
Mortality rates remain stable and continue to be highest in countries with high incidence and low vaccination rates, he said.
Omicron has been reported in 50 of 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia, in the area designated as Europe by the WHO and reaching from Portugal to Tajikistan.
Kluge focused on three messages: Firstly, he called on countries with no previous rises in cases of the Omicron strain to use the time to introduce precautionary measures.
Secondly, where the Omicron variant is spreading, the priority must be to protect those who are vulnerable and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed, he said.
Thirdly, Kluge called for efforts to keep schools open, saying these should be the last place to close and the first to reopen, to minimize the impact on children.