Omicron may infect half of Europeans within weeks, WHO says

More than half of Europe’s population may be infected with omicron within weeks at current transmission rates, a World Health Organization official said.

The fast-spreading variant represents a “west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across the region,” said Hans Kluge, the regional director of the WHO for Europe at a briefing Tuesday. He cited forecasts by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that the majority of Europeans could catch it in the next six to eight weeks.

The latest COVID-19 surge has so far resulted in fewer symptomatic cases and lower death rates than in previous waves, fueling optimism the pandemic may be easing. However, the WHO has repeatedly warned against underestimating the omicron strain as mild. Kluge said hospitalization rates are increasing in Europe, which is putting pressure on health systems.

Separately, another WHO official said it’s too early to consider that COVID-19 is moving into an endemic phase, a question that the Spanish government has suggested it’s time to debate.

An endemic phase would see “stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels, but what we’re seeing at the moment coming into 2022 is nowhere near that,” Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at WHO Europe, said.

“We still have a huge amount of uncertainty, we still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly and posing new challenges,” she said. “We’re certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic.”

WHO also said Tuesday that more research is needed to find out if existing COVID-19 vaccines provide adequate protection against omicron, even as manufacturers develop next generation shots.

The agency’s latest technical brief aims to answer some of the big outstanding questions about the heavily mutated variant which first emerged in November, such as on severity, transmissibility and ability to evade vaccines. It also fixes priorities for its member states.

But on one of the key questions of whether a new omicron-specific vaccine was needed now, the U.N. agency did not have an immediate answer.

“Further research is needed to better understand omicron’s immune escape potential against vaccine— and infection-induced immunity, and omicron-specific responses to vaccines,” it said.

A WHO official had previously said this issue required “global coordination” and should not be left to manufacturers to decide alone.

Some vaccine-makers are already developing next generation vaccines targeting the highly contagious variant first detected in Southern Africa and Hong Kong. On Monday, Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said a redesigned COVID-19 vaccine that specifically targets the omicron variant would likely be needed and his company could have one ready to launch by March.

Rival Moderna Inc. is also working on a vaccine candidate tailored to the omicron variant of the coronavirus, but it is unlikely to be available in the next two months.

A WHO technical group has been meeting on vaccine composition in recent weeks and is expected to come up with a further statement later on Tuesday, a WHO spokesperson said.

Additional data on vaccine effectiveness against omicron and the need for shots tailored towards the variant will be available in coming weeks, WHO said in the statement.

It urged countries and partners to study vaccine effectiveness and impact.

The agency said early data suggests that homologous and heterologous booster doses increase vaccine effectiveness against omicron infection and symptomatic disease compared to delta, but one study has shown declining effectiveness of booster doses against symptomatic disease caused by Omicron.

Analysis by the U.K. Health Security Agency has shown that booster jabs are providing high levels of protection for older people against severe disease from the omicron variant, but the duration of protection against mild symptomatic infection is more short-lived and drops to around 30% by about three months.

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