It is too soon for countries to be treating COVID as an endemic illness like flu, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned, because there is still a “huge amount of uncertainty” regarding the spread of the Omicron variant.
Omicron is on track to infect more than half of Europeans in the next two months, WHO’s Europe director Hans Kluge told reporters on Tuesday.
It comes after Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi suggested the UK could be one of the first countries to “transition” from a pandemic to endemic.
Omicron on track to infect more than half of Europeans in two months
Europe saw more than seven million new reported cases 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,” Mr Kluge told a news briefing, referring to a research centre at the University of Washington.
Fifty out of 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have logged cases of the more transmissible variant.
Since it was first reported by scientists in South Africa in November, the COVID-19 strain has spread internationally and is now known to be in at least a third of countries.
The transition from pandemic to endemic
Several studies have shown the risk of hospitalisation from Omicron is lower than from Delta.
But the WHO has cautioned more studies are still needed to prove this.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Monday that it may be time to track the ongoing COVID crisis in a similar method to the flu due to its lethality falling.
He said: “I believe that we have the conditions for, with precaution, slowly, opening the debate at the technical level and at the level of health professionals, but also at the European level, to start evaluating the evolution of this disease with different parameters than we have until now.”
At the weekend, Mr Zahawi told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday: “I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic, and then deal with this however long it remains with us, whether that’s five six, seven, 10 years.”
‘Still huge amount of uncertainty’
WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, has since warned against treating the virus as endemic.
She said: “We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges. We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic.”
Mr Kluge said 26 European countries reported that more than 1% of their populations are being infected with COVID each week, before urgently warning there is a “closing window of opportunity” for countries to prevent their health systems from being overwhelmed.
He added: “Omicron moves faster and wider than any (previous) variant we have seen.”