Over 50% of Europe’s population will be infected with omicron in the next 2 months, WHO says

LONDON — More than 50% of Europe’s population will be infected with the highly contagious omicron Covid-19 variant over the next two months, according to forecasts shared by a top World Health Organization official.

Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, cited data from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at a news briefing Tuesday, saying a new “West to East tidal wave” of omicron infections was sweeping across the region, on top of the previous delta variant which is still prevalent.

“It [omicron] is quickly becoming the dominant virus in Western Europe and is now spreading into the Balkans,” Kluge said. He added that the region saw more than 7 million infections in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period.

“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” he added.

Omicron has swept the region at an alarming pace, with some countries reintroducing social restrictions in an effort to curb it. However, early evidence suggests that omicron is less severe than the delta variant, although there are concerns that the sheer number of infections could still overwhelm health systems.

John Bell, a regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and the U.K. government’s life sciences advisor, told the BBC in late December that omicron was “not the same disease” as previous strains.

“The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago — intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely — that is now history in my view and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue,” he said.

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Discussing the omicron variant, he added: “The disease does appear to be less severe, and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital. They don’t need high-flow oxygen, average length of stay is apparently three days.”

Kluge stated Tuesday that mortality rates had remained stable and continued to be highest in countries with high Covid-19 incidence rates, combined with lower vaccination uptake.