More than half of Europe's population could be infected with the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19 over the next six to eight weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Tuesday, issuing a bleak forecast amid "a new West-to-East tidal wave [of infection] sweeping across the region."
"It [Omicron] is quickly becoming the dominant virus in Western Europe and is now spreading into the Balkans," Dr. Hans Kluge, regional director for Europe at the WHO, said during a press briefing Tuesday, citing data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. "The region saw over seven million cases of COVID-19 in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period."
As of Jan. 10, 26 countries in Europe have reported over 1% of their population have been infected with COVID-19 each week, according to the United Nations.
"At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50% of the populations in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks," Kluge warned.
While recent studies suggest that Omicron is less likely to case severe disease compared to other prominent COVID variants, the strain is highly contagious and can infect people even if they are full vaccinated, threatening more vulnerable populations.
The Omicron wave in Europe is also leading to rising COVID hospitalization rates, due to the unprecedented scale of transmission brought by the highly contagious strain. Kluge said Omicron is "challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed and threatens to overwhelm in many more". However, Kluge stated that mortality rates had remained stable and continued to be highest in countries with a combination of high infection and low vaccination rates.
Despite the variant's ability to infect many that are fully vaccinated, Kluge reiterated that currently approved vaccines, which include shots developed by Pfizer
Moreover, Kluge said that booster shots may play an essential role in protecting more vulnerable populations against severe disease. Kluge added that countries should make it a priority to avoid and reduce harm among those more vulnerable and minimize disruptions to healthcare systems and essential services.