The World Health Organization told governments on Tuesday it was too early to predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will burn itself out, as it warned that more than half of people in Europe would catch the disease over the next two months.
With the highly contagious Omicron strain unleashing “a new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across the region,” hospitalizations can be expected to rise, WHO Europe chief Hans Kluge told a press conference.
“It is challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed, and threatens to overwhelm in many more,” said Kluge.
The intervention by the global health body came after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez signaled a policy shift away from counting cases and quarantining, toward a risk-based approach typical of managing outbreaks of diseases like influenza that seeks to protect the most vulnerable.
Now was not the time to conclude that the pandemic will fade out, the WHO said, with the coronavirus as capable as ever of evolving and posing a new threat.
“In terms of endemicity, we’re still a way off,” Catherine Smallwood, WHO Europe’s senior emergency officer, told the same briefing.
“Endemicity assumes that, first of all, there’s stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels, and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” she said. “We really need to hold back on behaving as if it’s endemic before … the virus itself is behaving as if it’s endemic.”
Spain plans to shift from its current pandemic management approach to a so-called sentinel surveillance system, Sánchez said, with cases reported by a sample of hospitals and doctors used to estimate the prevalence of the disease and direct public health measures, such as vaccination programs.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is, meanwhile, under pressure from lawmakers in his ruling Conservative Party to lift restrictions now that the country’s record-breaking wave of Omicron infection appears to be peaking,
The WHO said that 50 of the 53 countries in the region spanning Europe and Central Asia had reported cases of Omicron, which is rapidly becoming the dominant viral strain in Western Europe and is now spreading in the Balkans. At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center in Washington, estimates that more than 50 percent of the population across the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks, it added.
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