Europe is now entering a “plausible endgame” to the Covid-19 pandemic, a director at the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said the region has recorded 12 million new Covid cases in the past week, with 30% of all cases since the pandemic began reported this year alone.
But he said “for now, the number of deaths across the region is starting to plateau”, adding that several things are on Europe’s side.
There is now an “opportunity to take control of transmission” because many people are immune to Omicron through either natural infection or vaccination.
Dr Kluge said there is a “favourable seasonal pause as we move out of the winter”, while the “lower severity of the Omicron variant” is also helping.
“This context, that we have not experienced so far in this pandemic, leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquillity and a much higher level of population defence against any resurge in transmission, even with a more virulent variant,” he said.
“This period of higher protection should be seen as a ceasefire that could bring us enduring peace…”
Dr Kluge said Europe must continue to “preserve immunity by keeping vaccinating and boosting”, protect the most vulnerable, promote “self-protecting behaviour and individual responsibility” and “intensify surveillance to detect new variants”.
He said new variants are inevitable but suggested that previous lockdown measures will not be needed.
He said: “I believe that it is possible to respond to new variants that will inevitably emerge without reinstalling the kind of disruptive measures we needed before.
“And it is because we see that opportunity that the top priority is to bring all countries to a level of protection which allows them to grasp this opportunity too, and look ahead towards more stable days.
“But this demands a drastic and uncompromising increase in vaccine-sharing across borders.
“We cannot accept vaccine inequity for one more day – vaccines must be for everyone, in the remotest corner of our vast region and beyond.”
Dr Kluge said the strategy in Europe now “shifts from minimising transmission to minimising disruption” and “doing whatever it takes” to boost vaccine uptake.
Ahead of World Cancer Day on Friday, he said there is a “deadly interplay” between cancer care backlogs and the delays to diagnosis caused by the pandemic.
Spring and summer must therefore be used to help “health workers return to other important healthcare functions”, he said.
At WHO’s Geneva headquarters on Tuesday, its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the wider world is still far from seeing an end to the pandemic.
“We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that, because of vaccines and because of Omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
WHO and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) continue to monitor the Omicron sub-variant named BA.2, which appears to be more transmissible than the original Omicron strain but seems to have the same level of severity.
Elsewhere, the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine Nuvaxovid has been approved in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The next step will be for the independent Joint Committee on Immunisation and Vaccination to consider its use as part of the UK Covid-19 vaccination programme.”