The start of 2022 has been marked by a surge in Covid cases as Omicron sweeps across Europe, and Delta variant infection rates expand. Approximately seven million new Covid cases were reported within Europe by the end of the first week of January, and the number of recorded infections has more than doubled within two weeks.
The World Health Organization has estimated that more than half of Europe’s total population will be infected by the Omicron variant within the upcoming weeks, in a spread of infections that will extend across the region in what Hans Kluge, the Organization’s Europe regional director, called a “West to East tidal wave.” Moreover, 26 countries had reported by January 10 that more than one percent of their population is being infected by Covid per week. Over 50 countries have now reported cases of Omicron as the variant is sweeping through both Western Europe and the Balkans.
The number of infections is likely to continue to rise in the upcoming weeks, significantly affecting Europe’s total population. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has predicted that over 50% of the region’s population will catch the new variant within the next six to eight weeks. The new strain’s highly transmissible nature has led to its rapid spread throughout the region; despite treatment, fully vaccinated people are still susceptible to being both infected and re-infected by the variant. Booster shots are helping to protect against the new fast-spreading variant, and are bolstering the vaccine protection against ebbing immunity.
Providing vaccines and booster shots remains a priority for European governments. Leaders are seeking to reduce the disparities in vaccination rates across the region and subsequently protect against a spike in mortality rates. Denmark, Portugal, and Malta currently lead the region in vaccination rates with over 80% of their respective populations being vaccinated. A majority of the EU/EEA countries have vaccinated at least half of their citizens, with 28 of 31 member states having now rolled out vaccines to over 50% of the population. Contrarily, there still remains a number of European countries that have only been able to vaccinate a minority of the population. Out of the region’s total 53 countries, 20 countries have vaccination rates resting below 50%. Among the countries with the lowest vaccination rates sits Armenia (24%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (22%), and Kyrgyzstan (15.2%).
Romania, the European Union’s second least-vaccinated member, has estimated an expected rise to 25,000 new daily cases by the peak of the next wave. Bulgaria is currently the EU’s least-vaccinated member nation, with a mere 32% of adults having been fully vaccinated. The country is expecting to be hit by the fifth wave by the end of January, and experience an increased rise in infections throughout February. A number of Balkans states have confirmed Omicron cases, including Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia; yet, they have not yet instated increased restrictions.
Many European countries still retain travel restrictions in an effort to control against the further spread of covid, and a number of countries have introduced heightened regulations. Italy currently requires all travelers to present a negative PCR test upon arrival, while Sweden has stated that it will no longer require a negative test following this week. France has reallowed UK travelers within its borders, and Spain has contrarily increased its regulations so that only fully-vaccinated UK travelers may enter the country. Moreover, Cyprus currently requires pre-departure PCR tests from all travelers before they arrive. The travel restrictions vary widely between countries, and are rapidly changing as the variant spreads throughout the region.
Health systems are likely to be increasingly burdened within the upcoming weeks, and governments are seeking to reduce the strain through limiting public gatherings and social interactions. Europe has already been affected by more than 89 million cases and 1.5 million covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. While Western Europe is seeing a decrease in severity of infection with the new variant, the region is yet to see the full effect of the strain within countries that retain lower vaccination rates. The rate and severity of infections within the upcoming weeks will continue to determine the approach that European nations take in response to Omicron, and a large amount of uncertainty remains as the region reacts to the virus and its challenges.