WHO Europe chief to give COVID-19, Omicron update ahead of Christmas

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The head of the European office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is on Tuesday expected to give an update on the spread of the Omicron variant across the Old Continent as he visits Austria.

Dr Hans Kluge will hold a joint press conference with Austrian Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein at around 17:15 CET.

It comes a day after WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged people to skip holiday gatherings, warning that “an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled.”

More than 2.6 million COVID-19 infections were reported across the 51 counties included in the WHO European region in the weeks ending on December 13 — the highest of any region for the 12th consecutive weeks, according to the UN’s agency COVID-19 dashboard.

Over 26,000 people lost their lives, taking the region’s death total death toll to more than 1.6 million.

Dr. Kluge stressed warned in a statement last week that as Europe goes into the holiday season, it will be dealing “with two highly transmissible variants, with the potential to overwhelm our already overstretched systems.”

“The European region was the epicentre of the pandemic even before the emergence of Omicron, with surging cases of the Delta variant,” he explained then.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the latest variant of concern has now been detected in 64 countries worldwide including most European Union member states.

As of December 16, the UK had detected Europe’s highest number of Omicron infections with 4,773 cases. It was followed by Denmark (267), Germany (237), Norway (179), and the Netherlands (149).

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Evidence gathered so far suggests community transmission of Omicron doubles every 1.5 to three days, the WHO said on Monday. It also appears to be more resistant to vaccines with people that have been fully vaccinated or who have recovered from the disease more likely to be infected or reinfected by Omicron.

The UN agency also highlighted that it is too early to conclude that Omicron is a milder variant than Delta.

In his statement last week, Dr. Kluge urged people to “exercise caution” over the festive period by attending only small social gatherings, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, observing physical distance of at least one metre and testing regularly.

He also called for people to “get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

“Vaccines remain the best way to prevent severe disease and death, even with the arrival of Omicron,” he said.

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