Omicron severity question answered in 3-4 weeks, WHO official says

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BRUSSELS, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Omicron will become the dominant coronavirus variant in Europe by the start of 2022 and three to four weeks is needed to determine the severity of the COVID-19 it causes, the World Health Organization's European head said on Wednesday.

Hans Kluge has warned countries to brace for a "significant surge" in cases.

He told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that Omicron, already dominant in Britain, Denmark and Portugal, was likely to be the main coronavirus strain in Europe "in a couple of weeks".

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"There is no doubt that Europe is once again the epicentre of the global pandemic," said Kluge, the WHO Regional Director for Europe, adding that infections were up 40% from a year ago and Omicron was now taking over.

"Yes, I'm very concerned, but there is no reason for panic," he said. "The good news is... we know what to do."

People needed to adopt a "vaccine-plus" approach, with vaccinations and booster shots complemented by mask-wearing, while ruling out "non-essential" contacts over Christmas and New Year, he said.

Countries should also be ready to implement stricter measures, but lockdowns should only be used as a last resort, given the economic and social cost.

Kluge said it was not clear how long immunity lasted after a third dose. Israel is set to become the first country to offer fourth vaccine doses to more vulnerable people.

World Health Organization's Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge gives an interview for Reuters in Brussels, Belgium, December 22, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

"But then let's remember that Israel was the first one to start. So I would say that a fourth dose in Israel is like a third dose in other countries," he said.


Some studies suggest Omicron causes less severe disease than the Delta variant that is dominant in most countries, but scientists are still debating this point.

Kluge said it would likely be three to four weeks before the question was answered.

While the coronavirus could not be eliminated, it could be stabilised, allowing hospitals to handle more cancer and cardio-vascular diseases.

Controlling the virus would come through vaccines, boosters, doubling the number of people wearing masks indoors, ventilation and use of new COVID-19 drugs.

Kluge said the good news from history was that every pandemic had ended.

"This virus has surprised us more than once so I would say I don't know when it will finish, but I think that we are on track that our lives will normalise next year, particularly if - we don't know – if Omicron would be less severe," he said.

"The key issue is how do we survive the winter, how do we leave no one behind."

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Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel

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