The COVID-19 Omicron variant is on track to infect more than half of Europeans but it should not yet be thought of as a flu-like endemic illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
- There were more than 7 million cases recorded across Europe in the first week of the year
- Fifty out of 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have logged cases of the more infectious variant
- The World Health Organization says the Omicron variant should not be considered flu-like
Europe had more than 7 million newly-reported cases in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period, WHO's Europe director Hans Kluge said on Tuesday.
"At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6-8 weeks," Mr Kluge said, 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 infectious variant, he said.
However, evidence is emerging that Omicron is affecting the upper respiratory tract more than the lungs, causing milder symptoms than previous variants.
But the WHO has cautioned more studies are still needed to prove this.
On Monday, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it may be time to change how it tracks COVID-19's evolution to instead use a method similar to flu, because its lethality has fallen.
That would imply treating the virus as an endemic illness, rather than a pandemic, without recording every case and without testing all people presenting symptoms.
But that is "a way off" according to WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, adding that endemicity requires a stable and predictable transmission.
"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," Ms Smallwood said.
"It may become endemic in due course, but pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage."
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