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COVID-19

Omicron variant poses ‘high to very high’ risk to Europe: EU health agency

The new Covid variant, dubbed Omicron and originally detected in South Africa, poses a "high to very high" risk to Europe, the EU health agency warned on Friday.

A student is tested with an antigenic Covid-19 test in France by a woman dressed in full PPE. 
The new variant poses a high risk to Europe, which is already struggling with high case numbers. Martin BUREAU / AFP

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) noted in a threat assessment report that there was still “considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of the Omicron variant.”

However, the overall risk that Omicron posed to the European Union and European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) was “high to very high.”

Given the possibility that current vaccines may not protect against the variant, and the fact that it may be more transmissible, “we assess the probability of further introduction and community spread in the EU/EEA as high,” the Stockholm-based agency said.

“In a situation where the Delta variant is resurgent in the EU/EEA, the impact of the introduction and possible further spread of Omicron could be very high,” it added.

This came as Germany’s BioNTech said on Friday it was urgently studying how well the coronavirus vaccine it developed with Pfizer protected against the new B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa.

It said it expected to receive more data from laboratory tests in two weeks “at the latest”. 

“These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally.”

Apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel in a person coming from Malawi as well as in Botswana, Hong Kong and EU member Belgium.

The agency urged countries to conduct genomic sequencing and contact tracing of confirmed cases, and called for people to not travel to affected areas.

The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the recently discovered strain to be a variant of concern.

The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of Covid-19 variants, along with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

Nations, including Austria, Germany, France and Denmark, rushed to curtail flights to slow the spread of Omicron on Friday, while stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

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COVID-19

‘Over a million people’ in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

Though Covid has not been a nationwide problem in Switzerland during recent several months, the virus is circulating again and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

'Over a million people' in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

While the new wave has not been expected to hit before fall or winter,  Swiss health officials now say 15 percent of Swiss population — more than 1 million people — could catch the virus before then.

This is a large number, considering that a total of 3.7 million people in Switzerland got infected since the beginning of the pandemic on February 24th, 2020.

“More than 80,000 new contaminations per week” are expected in the next two months, according to Tanja Stadler, the former head of the Covid-19 Task Force — much more than during the past two summers, when the rate of infections slowed down.

At the moment, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) reports 24,704 new cases in the past seven days — double of what it was in April.

“The numbers are expected to continue to rise. Note that most of infected people will not be tested, so the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler added.

Although according to FOPH, nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are less severe that the original Covid viruses, “more vulnerable people are likely to end up in hospital, and long Covid cases are also likely to rise”, she said.

Stadler also noted that Omicron virus can’t be compared with the flu, “because we observe long-term consequences much more often during an infection with Omicron than during the flu. Also, Covid can trigger very large waves, even in summer, while large flu outbreaks are rare at this time of year”.

There is, however, some positive news.

“The most recent data shows that 97 percent of the adult population in Switzerland has antibodies against Covid thanks to vaccinations and previous infections”, Stadler said.

Also, “in the long term, things will stabilise. But in the years to come, there will probably be waves in the summer too”.

READ MORE: UPDATE: When will Switzerland roll out second Covid boosters?

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