BRUSSELS (AP) – Omicron should be the coronavirus variant in the 27 countries of the European Union by mid-January, the bloc’s top official said on Wednesday, fearing a dramatic rise in infections could leave Europe in gloom during the holiday season .
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU was well prepared to tackle omicron with 66.6% of its population fully vaccinated. She said she was disappointed that the pandemic was once again disrupting year-end celebrations, but said she was convinced the EU had “the strength” and “the means” to overcome COVID-19.
“Like many of you, I am sad that once again this Christmas has been overshadowed by the pandemic,” she said.
The EU-wide vaccination rate masks the fact that some EU countries, such as Portugal and Spain, have vaccinated the vast majority of their populations while other countries are lagging behind. Bulgaria, for example, has only 26.6% of its population fully vaccinated, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Mainland Europe can look to Britain to get a sense of what to expect as the omicron spreads; British officials say it will be the dominant variant in the country in a few days. UK Health Safety Agency chief Dr Jenny Harries said omicron is showing a staggering growth rate compared to previous variants.
“The difficulty is that the growth of this virus, it has a doubling time which shortens, that is to say it doubles faster, grows faster,” Harries told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. “In most parts of the UK it is now less than two days. When it started, we estimated around four or five. ”
Harries said the variant poses “possibly the greatest threat we have had since the start of the pandemic.”
Britain recorded 78,610 new infections on Wednesday, its highest confirmed daily total in the pandemic. But deaths remained well below those in previous peaks in the country, before coronavirus vaccines were widely rolled out. Scientists said they were not yet sure if omicron was as deadly as other variants of the virus.
The alarming increase in infections as winter approaches and the persistence of the delta variant have prompted many European governments to implement public health measures, as excess mortality increased during the fall.
The head of the World Health Organization said 77 countries have reported cases of omicron, but the variant is likely not yet detected in most countries. The WHO says data is still coming in and a lot is still unknown about the new variant.
According to an analysis Tuesday data from South Africa, Where omicron leads to an increase in infections, the variant appears to spread more easily from person to person and evade vaccines better while causing less severe illness.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate that we haven’t seen with any previous variant. We are concerned that people will view omicron as being mild,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We surely have. now learned that we underestimate this virus at our peril. “
Tedros stressed that vaccines were only a tool – even a major one – to fight the pandemic, along with measures such as wearing a mask, better indoor ventilation, social distancing and hand washing.
With omicron now on the scene, more and more countries are adopting restrictions. Italy demanded negative tests from vaccinated visitors this week, raising concerns that similar trips elsewhere will limit the ability of EU citizens to travel to see friends and relatives during the holidays.
Portugal adopted a similar measure on December 1, requiring a mandatory negative test for all passengers on arriving flights, regardless of their vaccination status, point of origin or nationality.
Greece announced on Wednesday that all arriving travelers must test negative from Sunday unless they have spent less than 48 hours abroad.
Von der Leyen said the EU faces a double challenge, with a massive increase in cases in recent weeks due to the delta variant combined with the rise in omicron.
“We are seeing an increasing number of people falling ill, a heavier burden on hospitals and, unfortunately, an increase in the number of deaths,” she told lawmakers in the European Parliament.
Von der Leyen insisted that the increase in infections in Europe today remains “almost exclusively” due to the delta variant. She said tackling vaccine skepticism is essential, especially in EU countries with lower vaccination rates.
“Because the price we will pay if people are not vaccinated continues to rise,” she said. “It is also a problem for our elderly citizens, who once again this Christmas cannot see their grandchildren. And it is also a problem for those children who, once again, cannot go to school. ‘school. What kind of life is this? “
Echoing von der Leyen’s words, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday pledged his new government will do anything to get Germany to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and allow people to resume normal lives.
“We have no time to waste,” said Scholz, who took office as Germany grapples with its biggest wave of infections in the pandemic to date.
Scholz also said his German government would not tolerate a “tiny minority” of extremists trying to impose their will against coronavirus policies.
As governments braced for the holiday season, Greece, Italy, Spain and Hungary have started immunizing children ages 5 to 11 against COVID-19.
EU leaders have a summit scheduled for Thursday in Brussels.
Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Danica Kirka in London, Raf Casert in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin have contributed to this story.
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