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The Omicron variant has moved the COVID-19 pandemic into a new phase and could bring it to an end in Europe, the WHO Europe director said Sunday.
"It's plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame," Hans Kluge said in an interview, adding that Omicron could infect 60 per cent of Europeans by March.
Once the current surge of Omicron currently sweeping across Europe subsides, "there will be for quite some weeks and months a global immunity, either thanks to the vaccine or because people have immunity due to the infection, and also lowering seasonality."
"So we anticipate that there will be a period of quiet before Covid-19 may come back towards the end of the year, but not necessarily the pandemic coming back," Kluge said.
The Omicron variant, which studies have shown generally leads to less severe infection among vaccinated people than Delta, has raised long-awaited hopes that Covid-19 is starting to shift from a pandemic to a more manageable endemic illness like seasonal flu.
"There is a lot of talk about endemic but endemic means ... that it is possible to predict what's going to happen. This virus has surprised (us) more than once so we have to be very careful", Kluge said.
In the WHO Europe region, which comprises 53 countries including several in Central Asia, Omicron represented 15 per cent of new cases as of Jan.18, compared to 6.3 per cent a week earlier, the health body said.
The overall death toll jumped to more than 5,000, including nearly 1,500 in Europe, with total infections topping 140,000 internationally, according to an AFP tally based on official sources.
Even countries that avoided severe outbreaks during Europe's first wave of contagion in the spring have watched their case numbers surge, with Germany's death toll passing 10,000 on Saturday.
The variant's global spread suggests it could have a major impact on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the time to contain it is now before more Omicron patients are hospitalised, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said that the variant was successfully evading some immune responses, meaning that the booster programmes being rolled out in many countries ought to be targeted towards people with weaker immune systems.
Omicron appears to be better at evading antibodies generated by some COVID-19 vaccines but there are other forms of immunity that may prevent infection and disease, WHO officials said.
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