Over half of people in Europe could be infected with coronavirus soon: WHO

2022-01-12 13:41:37
Over half of people in Europe could be infected with coronavirus soon: WHO

More than half of people in Europe could be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the next six to eight weeks, the World Health Organization warned on Tuesday, amid “a new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across the region.”

“The region saw over seven million cases of Covid-19 in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period,” Dr. Hans Kluge, the agency’s regional director for Europe, said at a news conference.

While coronavirus vaccines remain remarkably effective at preventing severe illness and death, the agency cautioned against treating the virus like the seasonal flu, since much remains unknown — particularly regarding the severity of the disease in areas with lower vaccination rates, such as Eastern Europe.

The WHO has cautioned for months that booster shots could worsen vaccine inequality around the world, but Dr. Kluge said on Tuesday that they would play an essential role in protecting the most vulnerable people from severe disease and should also be used to protect health workers and other essential employees, including teachers.

Since Omicron was first detected in late November, it has torn across the planet at a pace unseen during two years of the pandemic. As friends, co-workers and family members test positive, the reality that the virus is moving quickly and widely has been a defining feature of this wave of infection.

But the steep rise that Dr. Kluge cited, based on forecasts by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, is a stark paradigm shift. Although the institute’s models have frequently been criticized by experts, it is clear that the virus is spreading quickly. Even if many people avoid severe illness, the virus promises to cause societal disruption across the continent.

While much of the public discussion has revolved around whether this was the moment when governments should shift policies and restrictions to treat the coronavirus as an endemic disease — removing most restrictions and allowing people to manage risk in a way similar to the way they do with influenza — the WHO said it was too early to call this virus endemic.

One of the central struggles of governments across Europe has been trying to keep schools open, and Dr. Kluge described those efforts as essential.

An example of that pressure was apparent this week in France, where 10,452 classes were canceled on Monday, according to the government. Prime Minister Jean Castex said that going forward, schoolchildren in the country would be allowed to do self-tests instead of P.C.R. tests if one of their classmates tested positive, in an attempt to keep the education system functioning.

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