(ORDO NEWS) — The Omicron option has brought the Covid-19 pandemic into a new phase and could end it in Europe, the European director of the World Health Organization has said.
“It is likely that Europe is heading towards the end of the pandemic,” Hans Kluge told AFP, adding that Omicron could infect 60 percent of Europeans by March.
Once the current wave of omicrons that has swept Europe subsides, “global immunity will remain for several weeks and months, either due to a vaccine, or because people are immune due to infection, and also due to reduced seasonality.”
“We assume there will be a period of calm before Covid-19 may return by the end of the year, but the pandemic will not necessarily return,” Kluge said.
Leading US scientist Anthony Fauci expressed similar optimism on Sunday.
He said in an interview with the ABC News talk show This Week that as Covid-19 cases are dropping “quite sharply” in parts of the US, “things are looking good.”
Cautioning against overconfidence, he said that if the recent decline in cases in areas like the US northeast continues, “I believe you’ll start to see a turn for the better across the country.”
Last week, the WHO Regional Office for Africa also said that the number of Covid-19 cases in the region had fallen sharply and the number of deaths had decreased for the first time since the fourth wave of the virus, dominated by the Omicron variant, peaked.
The Omicron variant, which studies have shown to be more contagious than Delta but typically results in less severe infection among vaccinated people, has raised long-awaited hopes that Covid-19 is starting to turn from a pandemic into a more manageable endemic disease like seasonal flu.
But Kluge warned that it is still too early to consider Covid-19 endemic.
“There’s a lot of talk about endemic now, but endemic means … you can predict what will happen. This virus has surprised us more than once, so we have to be very careful,” Kluge said.
Because Omicron has spread so widely, other options may emerge, he warned.
European Commissioner for Internal Markets Thierry Breton, whose responsibilities include producing vaccines, said on Sunday it would be possible to adapt existing vaccines to any new options that might come up.
“We will be better able to resist, including new options,” he told French television LCI.
“We will be ready to adapt vaccines, especially mRNA vaccines, if necessary, to adapt them to more virulent variants.”
In the WHO European Region, which includes 53 countries, including several countries in Central Asia, omicron accounted for 15 percent of new cases as of January 18, up from 6.3 percent a week earlier, the health authority said.
Omicron is currently the dominant option in the European Union and the European Economic Area (EEA, or Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), EU health agency ECDC said last week.
With this option spreading very quickly across Europe, Kluge said the focus should be on “minimizing disruption to hospitals, schools and the economy, and protecting vulnerable populations” rather than measures to stop transmission of the virus.
At the same time, he urged people to take personal responsibility.
“If you feel unwell, stay at home, take a self-test. If the result is positive, isolate yourself,” he said.
Kluge said the priority is to stabilize the situation in Europe, where vaccination rates in different countries range from 25 to 95 percent of the population, resulting in varying degrees of strain on hospitals and the health care system.
“Stabilization means that the healthcare system is no longer overwhelmed by Covid-19 and can continue to provide essential healthcare services that have, unfortunately, been really disrupted with regards to cancer, cardiovascular disease and routine immunizations.”
When asked if fourth doses would be needed to end the pandemic, Kluge was cautious, saying only that “we know that immunity goes up after every vaccine shot.”
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