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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

Will France’s Covid-19 health pass be consigned to the past?

France suspended but did not cancel the Covid pass in March - but the government has suggested it might not return, even with the country in the grip of the virus’s seventh wave

Will France's Covid-19 health pass be consigned to the past?

Cases of Covid-19 in France have risen 57.8 percent in the past week with daily cases topping the 200,000 mark on Tueday.

The virus’s seventh wave has the country in its grip – but it seems the government has no plans to reintroduce vaccine pass measures.

READ ALSO How serious will France’s seventh wave of Covid-19 be?

The vaccine pass –  itself a two-month development of the old health pass which had been required for entry to certain venues such as bars, restaurants and cafes – was suspended on March 14th, as cases of Covid-19 in France fell. But the health emergency law that enforced it was still in effect and allowed it to be reactivated at any time.

That law runs out on July 31st. Now, it seems the pass will not return. Reports in the French press last month claimed that the health ministry was discussing the possibility of re-imposing some form of pass sanitaire, a bill intended to replace the current health emergency laws makes no mention of it. 

The new president of the National Assembly, Yaël Braun-Pivet, confirmed this week that the vaccine pass was not included in the new bill, entitled “health monitoring and security”, which will be submitted to the National Assembly for debate from July 11 and will, if passed, come into law on August 1st – the day after the current law expires.

“[It] is not what is planned in the text of the law that will be submitted to parliament this week,” Braun-Pivet said.

Rather, the bill extends epidemic surveillance and contact case identification systems until March 31st, 2023. 

The second provides for the implementation of border control measures – such as requiring visitors to France to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test – if a so-called variant of concern were to spread rapidly abroad, as confirmed by new government spokesman Olivier Véran. 

Currently, most health rules in place at the height of the pandemic have been relaxed. Masks are only required in French hospitals, health centres and places that have vulnerable residents such as nursing homes. They are also recommended in crowded spaces where it is impossible to practice social distancing.

READ ALSO French public urged to wear face masks again on public transport

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