The coronavirus omicron variant is sweeping across Europe like a “tidal wave,” with over 7 million new cases recorded in just the first week of 2022 and surging hospitalizations challenging health systems, the regional chief of the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.
Infections in Europe have more than doubled in the past two weeks, WHO Europe head Hans Kluge said at a press conference, expressing concern over the rising number of unvaccinated people falling prey to the virus.
“The omicron variant represents a new tidal wave sweeping across the region from the west to the east, on top of the delta surge that all countries were managing until late 2021,” he said.
“Omicron is quickly becoming the dominant virus in Western Europe and is now spreading in the Balkans.”
As of Jan. 10, 26 countries reported that over 1% of their population is testing positive for COVID-19 each week, and 50 of the 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia have now reported cases of omicron, he added.
“Mortality rates remain stable and continue to be highest in countries with high COVID-19 incidence, combined with lower vaccination uptake,” said Kluge.
At the current rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the European Region – which extends from Greenland in the northwest to the Russian Far East – will be infected with omicron in the next six to eight weeks.
“It is challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where omicron has spread at speed and threatens to overwhelm in many more,” Kluge warned.
He said that the greatest burden of responding to the pandemic is shouldered by healthcare staff and other essential frontline workers, who are also at the greatest risk of exposure to the virus.
“I am also deeply concerned that as the variant moves east, we have yet to see its full impact in countries where levels of vaccination uptake are lower and where we will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated,” he said.
He cited Denmark as an example, where omicron cases have exploded in recent weeks and hospitalizations of unvaccinated patients were six-fold higher than for those fully vaccinated in a week during the Christmas period.
“Data from the UK Obstetric Surveillance System shows 96% of pregnant women admitted to hospital with COVID-19 symptoms between May and October 2021 were unvaccinated, a third of whom required respiratory support,” said Kluge.
He said the omicron strain moves faster than any variant previously seen.
“We, therefore, urge all countries to mandate the use of high-quality masks in closed and indoor settings, and ensure that vulnerable individuals have access to them,” the WHO official added.