BRUSSELS — Omicron is expected to be the dominant coronavirus variant in the European Union’s 27 nations by mid-January, the bloc’s top official said today amid concerns that a dramatic rise in infections will leave Europe shrouded in gloom during the holiday season.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stated that the EU was well-prepared to combat omicron. The EU has 66.6% fully vaccinated. She expressed disappointment that the pandemic will again disrupt year-end celebrations but said she was confident the EU has the “strength” and “means” to overcome COVID-19.
“Like many of you, I’m sad that once again this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic,” she said.
The EU vaccination rate is misleading as some EU countries, such as Portugal and Spain, have high rates of vaccination while others are far behind. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, only 26.6% have been fully vaccinated in Bulgaria.
The United Kingdom has declared that it will become the most dominant variant in Europe within days. This is a warning to continental Europe. Dr. Jenny Harries from the U.K. Health Security Agency said that omicron shows a phenomenal growth rate when compared with other variants.
“The difficulty is that the growth of this virus, it has a doubling time which is shortening, i.e. it’s doubling faster, growing faster,’’ Harries told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. “In most regions in the U.K., it is now under two days. When it started, we were estimating about four or five.’’
Harries said the variant poses “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic.”
On Wednesday, Britain saw 78,610 infections, which was the most number of new cases ever recorded during the pandemic. The deaths have remained lower than in previous pandemics due to vaccinations.
As winter approached, alarming increases in infection rates and the presence of the delta variant made it necessary for many European countries to take public health precautions as excessive mortality rose during fall.
The World Health Organization’s head said that 77 countries had reported cases. But, it was likely that the variant has been detected in all of them. WHO states that new data are still being collected and many details remain unknown. A Tuesday analysis of South Africa data shows that this variant appears to spread more easily from one person to another and is better at evading vaccinations.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. We are concerned that people are dismissing omicron as mild,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “Surely we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”
He emphasized that vaccines were just one tool—if a major one—to fight the pandemic, along with measures like mask-wearing, better ventilation indoors, social distancing and washing hands.
More countries are now adopting restrictions due to omicron. Italy required that visitors to the country be negative tested for omicron. This raises concerns about the possibility of similar actions elsewhere in the EU, which could limit citizens’ ability to travel within the EU to visit family and friends over holidays.
Portugal adopted similar measures on December 1. All passengers arriving on flights must undergo a mandatory negative screening regardless of whether they are vaccinated, from where or what nationality.
Von der Leyen claimed that the EU faces two challenges, due to a significant increase in the number of cases and the rise in omicron.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of people falling ill, a greater burden on hospitals and unfortunately, an increase in the number of deaths,” she told European Parliament lawmakers.
Von der Leyen insisted that the increase in infections in Europe right now remains due “almost exclusively” to the delta variant. It is important to fight vaccine skepticism, particularly among EU members with lower vaccination rates.
“Because the price that we will pay if people are not vaccinated continues to increase,” she said. “It’s also a problem for our elderly citizens, who once again this Christmas can’t see their grandchildren. And it’s also a problem for those children who once again can’t go to school. What kind of a life is that?”
Echoing von der Leyen’s comments, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed Wednesday that his new government would do everything for Germany to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and let people return to normal lives.
“We have no time to waste,” said Scholz, who took office as Germany grapples with its biggest wave of infections during the pandemic to date.
Scholz also said his German government won’t tolerate a “tiny minority” of extremists trying to impose their will against coronavirus policies.
Governments were ready for holidays when Greece, Spain, Italy and Hungary began to vaccinate children between 5-11 years against COVID-19.
The summit is being held in Brussels by EU leaders.