WHO’s Europe chief says ‘another storm coming’ as Omicron takes hold

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Intl desk, Dec 22: The World Health Organization’s European head has warned countries to brace for a “significant surge” in Covid-19 cases as Omicron spreads, and advised the widespread use of boosters for protection.

Since it emerged in late November, Omicron has been detected in at least 38 of the 53 countries in the WHO’s European region and is already dominant in several of them, including Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, Hans Kluge told a news conference in Vienna on Tuesday.

“We can see another storm coming,” said Kluge. “Within weeks, Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink.”

The WHO’s Europe region includes Russia and other former Soviet republics, as well as Turkey.

WHO data shows the region has in recent weeks reported the highest number of Covid-19 cases compared to population size anywhere in the world. Even before Omicron, officials had warned of a further 700,000 deaths.

WHO headquarters in Geneva has advised that vaccine boosters be saved for the most vulnerable, but Kluge urged people to “boost, boost, boost”.

“The booster is the single most important defence against Omicron,” he said.

A WHO spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kluge’s remarks.

So far, 89% of the early Omicron cases in Europe were associated with common Covid-19 symptoms such as cough, sore throat and fever, Kluge said. Most cases had been reported among adults in their 20s and 30s, spreading initially in cities at social and workplace gatherings, he added.

“The sheer volume of new Covid-19 infections could lead to more hospitalisations and widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services,” he said.

“Governments and authorities need to prepare our response systems for a significant surge.”

The WHO said on Monday that Omicron is spreading faster than the Delta variant, causing infections in people already vaccinated or recovered from the disease. Its chief scientist has called it “unwise” to conclude from early evidence it is a milder variant than previous ones.

The news came as some countries in Europe tightened curbs, with Portugal ordering nightclubs and bars to close and telling people to work from home for at least two weeks, and Germany reimposing tighter rules on social contact.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, met the country’s 16 state leaders on Tuesday to decide on new measures including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 vaccinated people.

Children under 14 are expected to be exempt from the rules, which will not come into effect until 28 December. Unvaccinated people are already only allowed to meet a maximum of two people from outside their own household.

In Sweden, people are being urged to work from home if possible, along with tighter rules for social distancing and a requirement for seated-only service at bars, restaurants and larger public events.

Concerns were also growing in Spain, where the country’s sixth coronavirus wave has sent infection rates soaring at it prepares to enter the Christmas season. The number of cases per 100,000 people hit 609 on Monday, up from 290 a fortnight ago.

Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has urged people to remain calm but called an emergency meeting of the country’s regional leaders on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the response.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, ruled out further restrictions before Christmas. Johnson said he understood that families across England needed certainty to press ahead with Christmas plans but warned curbs could still be imposed after 25 December because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

From Tuesday, the Covid self-isolation period in England will be cut from 10 days to seven for vaccinated people in a move that could also help save Christmas for tens of thousands of people if they get the all-clear from lateral flow tests on days 6 and 7, the government announced.

The Christmas decision, which follows deep splits within the cabinet, was in contrast to moves by the Scottish and Welsh governments on Tuesday. Edinburgh’s annual Hogmanay street party has been cancelled, while in Wales employees face £60 fines for failing to work from home as governments tightened rules to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.

Source: The Guardian, Reuters