Almost a third of all COVID-19 cases since the pandemic have been reported this year alone, according to a statement by WHO/Europe on Thursday.
The European Region has recorded 12 million new cases in the past week. This is the highest weekly case incidence since the start of the pandemic and is largely being driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, as it sweeps from West to East.
“We now have nearly 150 million reported cases of COVID-19 in Europe and Central Asia to date,” said WHO/Europe Regional Director, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, at a press conference in Copenhagen (3 January).
22% of all tests recorded are positive. Hospitalizations continue to rise, mainly in countries with lower vaccination uptake in vulnerable populations. This rise however, is not as rapid as the case incidence rate – and overall, admissions to intensive care have not increased significantly. For now, the number of deaths across the region is starting to plateau.
He reiterated his call last week which referred to a plausible endgame for the pandemic. On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that, “The time has come ‘neither to surrender nor to declare victory’ in the face of the coronavirus.”
“More transmission means more deaths. We are not calling for any country to return to so-called lockdown. But we are calling on all countries to protect their people using every tool in the toolkit, not vaccines alone. This virus is dangerous, and it continues to evolve before our very eyes. WHO is currently tracking four sub-lineages of the Omicron variant of concern, including BA.2.”
Dr Kluge sounded more optimistic and highlighted that in the European Region there is a singular opportunity to take control of the transmission because of the congruence of three elements: 1) A large capital of vaccine derived and natural immunity by Omicron; 2) A favourable seasonality pause as we move out of the winter; and 3) A lower severity of the Omicron variant, now well established.
“This context, that we have not experienced so far in this pandemic, leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquillity and a much higher level of population defence against any re-surge in transmission, even with a more virulent variant,” he explained.
This period of higher protection should be seen as a ‘ceasefire’ that could bring us enduring peace, on the condition that immunity is preserved by keeping vaccinating and boosting and continuing focusing on “the five stabilizers” for the most vulnerable (vaccination, boosters, mask-wearing indoors, ventilating crowded spaces, adopting rigorous therapeutic protocols for severe cases).
But this also demands a “drastic and uncompromising” increase in vaccine-sharing across borders. “We cannot accept vaccine inequity for one more day – vaccines must be for everyone, in the remotest corner of our vast Region and beyond.”
The surveillance to detect new variants should be intensified. “I believe that it is possible to respond to new variants that will inevitably emerge – without re-installing the kind of disruptive measures we needed before.”
What is WHO/Europe’s assessment of the Omicron subvariant BA.2?
“It’s increasingly spreading in the European region,” replied Dr Gerald Rockenschaub, Regional Emergency Director. “Cases of the subvariant has been detected in at least 28 member states of the region. It’s as highly transmissible as Omicron BA.1 with a similar severity but further studies are needed.”
WHO/Europe told The Brussels Times that it is not aware of cases where people who have recovered from Omicron BA.1 have been infected by BA.2.
“However, these types of investigations are only just underway. We normally define ‘reinfection’ as occurring after 90 days of a previous infection, so given that Omicron was only detected in our region quite recently, it is too early for us to make this judgement.”
Do you know if those infected by BA.2 were vaccinated and had received boosters?
“No vaccine is 100% effective, so inevitably there will be some degree of immune escape, meaning that some of these cases are likely to be in people that have been vaccinated or had boosters.”
The Brussels Times