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COVID-19

Omicron variant poses ‘high to very high’ risk to Europe: EU health agency

The new Covid variant, dubbed Omicron and originally detected in South Africa, poses a "high to very high" risk to Europe, the EU health agency warned on Friday.

A student is tested with an antigenic Covid-19 test in France by a woman dressed in full PPE. 
The new variant poses a high risk to Europe, which is already struggling with high case numbers. Martin BUREAU / AFP

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) noted in a threat assessment report that there was still “considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of the Omicron variant.”

However, the overall risk that Omicron posed to the European Union and European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) was “high to very high.”

Given the possibility that current vaccines may not protect against the variant, and the fact that it may be more transmissible, “we assess the probability of further introduction and community spread in the EU/EEA as high,” the Stockholm-based agency said.

“In a situation where the Delta variant is resurgent in the EU/EEA, the impact of the introduction and possible further spread of Omicron could be very high,” it added.

This came as Germany’s BioNTech said on Friday it was urgently studying how well the coronavirus vaccine it developed with Pfizer protected against the new B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa.

It said it expected to receive more data from laboratory tests in two weeks “at the latest”. 

“These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally.”

Apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel in a person coming from Malawi as well as in Botswana, Hong Kong and EU member Belgium.

The agency urged countries to conduct genomic sequencing and contact tracing of confirmed cases, and called for people to not travel to affected areas.

The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the recently discovered strain to be a variant of concern.

The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of Covid-19 variants, along with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

Nations, including Austria, Germany, France and Denmark, rushed to curtail flights to slow the spread of Omicron on Friday, while stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

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COVID-19

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”

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