Omicron will dominate European countries within weeks, pushing an already stretched health system further to the brink, said head of the European office of the World Health Organization (WHO) while urging people to get a booster jab.
Detected barely a month ago, the fast spreading strain of Covid has so far spread to 106 countries, according to the WHO. It has already become dominant in several countries, including in Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, where its numbers are doubling every one and a half to 3 days, generating previously unseen transmission rates.
"We can see another storm coming," said Dr Hans Kluge, in a statement. "Omicron is likely to become the dominant variant circulating in our Region," he added. Last week, Europe and central Asia saw 27,000 additional Covid-19 deaths and 2.6 million new cases. Infections, still predominantly from the Delta variant, are 40 per cent higher now than during the same period last year.
"The sheer volume of new Covid-19 infections could lead to more hospitalisations and widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services. It has unfortunately already resulted in hospitalisations and deaths," Kluge said.
Further, the variant is known to evade previous immunity in people, which means it can still infect those who have had Covid-19 in the past, those who are unvaccinated, and those who were vaccinated many months ago. Studies have shown that individuals who have recovered from Covid-19 are three to five times more likely to be reinfected with Omicron compared to Delta.
While it is not yet known whether Omicron causes more severe disease than the Delta variant, early evidence supports the assumption that Covid-19 vaccines continue to do their job and save lives, Kluge said.
"We need to do urgently: protect ourselves through vaccination, prevent further infections, and prepare health systems for a surge in cases," Kluge said. It is essential to "scale-up vaccine uptake, be it a first, second or an additional/booster dose".
"If you are unvaccinated - get the jab. If you have had Covid-19 in the past - get the jab. If you are due a booster - get the jab," Kluge noted. Besides vaccination, he urged people to avoid crowds, closed, and confined spaces; keep a physical distance from others; frequently wash hands; wear a mask; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and properly ventilate indoor spaces.
It comes a day after WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged people to skip holiday gatherings, warning that "an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled."
More than 2.6 million Covid-19 infections were reported across the 51 counties included in the WHO European region in the weeks ending on December 13 - the highest of any region for the 12th consecutive weeks, according to the UN's agency Covid-19 dashboard.
Over 26,000 people lost their lives, taking the region's total death toll to more than 1.6 million.
While advising governments and authorities to prepare response systems for a significant surge, he said that concerns of health workers "must be addressed and their need for manageable working conditions supported". "2 years in, our health workers are being severely tested once again. It is deeply worrying that one in 5 is suffering from anxiety and depression from the pandemic," Kluge said.