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Omicron could be dominant in Europe by mid-January

Omicron could be the dominant coronavirus variant in Europe by mid-January, causing a surge in cases and likely increasing the number of hospitalisations and deaths, European Union officials said Wednesday.

“We are facing another Christmas in pandemic mode,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told lawmakers in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, noting that reports of new cases in the bloc were doubling every two to three days.

Her speech and an assessment by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control painted a grim picture of the state of the pandemic on the continent, where many countries have recently reintroduced restrictions and scrambled to speed up vaccination campaigns.

The agency labelled risk posed by the likely spread of the omicron variant as “very high.”

The European Union appears to be better positioned to face a new wave of infections this holiday season than last, when vaccinations had yet to begin in earnest. Now, about two-thirds of the bloc’s residents have been fully vaccinated, and about 14% have also received a booster shot. Von der Leyen noted that the European Union can now produce 300 million vaccine doses a month.

But Dr. Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, warned that “in the current situation, vaccination alone will not allow us to prevent the impact of the omicron variant, because there will be no time to address the vaccination gaps that still exist.”

 

It remains unclear how well existing vaccines protect against omicron, and to what extent a surge in omicron infections could become a surge in hospitalisations. In Denmark, where researchers estimated this week that omicron cases were doubling every two days, about three-quarters of residents are fully vaccinated, and so are three-quarters of the people who have tested positive for omicron.

After a sluggish start, most EU countries sped up their vaccination campaigns over the summer. But even so, surges first of delta cases, and now of omicron, have renewed strains on health care systems, forced schools and offices to close, and made self-isolation the rule again for millions of people.

In what could be a sign of things to come in Europe, German health authorities on Tuesday night said that country may face a vaccine shortage in the first quarter of next year. Karl Lauterbach, the country’s health minister, told German broadcaster ARD that the country needs more doses.

Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain are opening up vaccine eligibility to children this week. The Netherlands has extended an evening lockdown until mid-January, and countries like Denmark and Belgium have started requiring restaurants and bars to close earlier.

The Greek health ministry announced on Wednesday that travelers arriving in Greece from anywhere else, including other European Union countries, would be required to show proof of a negative PCR test taken in the previous 48 hours. Italy and Portugal have recently imposed similar rules.

The bloc’s leaders are set to meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss measures to slow the spread of omicron, including addressing vaccine skepticism and ramping up efforts to administer booster shots. But they remain divided on whether to impose more travel restrictions.



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