The head of the European Union’s executive branch said Wednesday that omicron is expected to be the dominant coronavirus variant in the 27-nation bloc by mid-January, amid concerns that a dramatic rise in infections will leave Europe shrouded in gloom during the holiday season.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU is well prepared to fight omicron with 66.6% of the bloc’s population fully vaccinated. Von der Leyen expressed disappointment that the pandemic will again disrupt year-end celebrations but said she was confident the EU has the “strength” and “means” to overcome COVID-19.
“Like many of you, I’m sad that once again this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic,” she said.
Continental Europe can look to Britain for a sense of what lies ahead as omicron spreads.
The head of the U.K. Health Security Agency, Dr. Jenny Harries, said omicron is displaying a staggering growth rate compared to previous variants.
“The difficulty is that the growth of this virus, it has a doubling time which is shortening, i.e. it’s doubling faster, growing faster,’’ Harries told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. “In most regions in the U.K., it is now under two days. When it started, we were estimating about four or five.’’
Harries said the variant poses “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic.”
Alarming rises in cases as winter approached and the delta variant remained at large prompted many European governments to implement public health measures as excess mortality increased during the fall.
With omicron now on the scene, more countries are adopting restrictions. Italy, for example, this week required negative tests from vaccinated visitors, raising concerns that similar moves elsewhere will limit the ability of EU citizens to travel to see friends and relatives over the holidays.
Portugal adopted a similar measure on Dec. 1, requiring a mandatory negative test for all passengers on arriving flights, regardless of their vaccination status, point of origin or nationality.
Von der Leyen said the EU faces a double challenge, with a massive increase of cases in recent weeks due to the delta variant combined with the rise of omicron.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of people falling ill, a greater burden on hospitals and unfortunately, an increase in the number of deaths,” she told European Parliament lawmakers.
Von der Leyen insisted that the increase in infections remains due “almost exclusively” to the delta variant.
“And what I’m concerned about is that we now (are) seeing the new variant omicron on the horizon, which is apparently even more infectious,” she said.
According to an analysis Tuesday of data from South Africa, where the new variant is driving a surge in infections, omicron seems to be more easily spread from person to person and better at evading vaccines, but also milder.
Von der Leyen said that fighting vaccine skepticism is key, especially in EU member nations with lower vaccination rates.
“Because the price that we will pay if people are not vaccinated continues to increase,” she said. “It’s also a problem for our elderly citizens, who once again this Christmas can’t see their grandchildren. And it’s also a problem for those children who once again can’t go to school. What kind of a life is that?”
Echoing von der Leyen’s comments, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed Wednesday that his new government would do everything for Germany to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and let people return to their normal lives.
“We have no time to waste,” said Scholz, who took office as Germany grapples with its biggest wave of infections during the pandemic to date.
Scholz also said that the government won’t tolerate a “tiny minority” of extremists trying to impose their will against coronavirus policies.
As governments brace for the holiday season, Greece and a handful of other European Union countries began vaccinating children ages 5-11 on Wednesday against COVID-19. Italy, Spain and Hungary were also among those countries expanding the vaccination program to younger children.
The leaders of the EU member nations have a summit scheduled for Thursday in Brussels.