More than half of people in Europe are projected to catch Omicron by March, the WHO said on Tuesday, as millions in China locked down again exactly two years after Beijing reported the first Covid-19 death.
The highly-transmissible variant has ripped through countries at breakneck pace, forcing governments to impose fresh measures and scramble to roll out vaccine booster shots.
Europe is at the epicentre of alarming new outbreaks alongside mounting hospital admissions and deaths while the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday Omicron could infect half of all people in the region at current rates.
“The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” said Hans Kluge, regional director for WHO’s European office.
The WHO’s European region covers 53 countries and territories, including several in Central Asia, and Kluge said 50 of them had Omicron cases.
Kluge confirmed that Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, but stressed “approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death — including for Omicron”.
The warning came exactly two years after the announcement of the first person dying of a virus only later identified as Covid — a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, China, where the illness was first detected. Since January 11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to nearly 5.5 million.
China largely tamed its initial outbreak with a mix of lockdowns, border closures and mass testing, but flare-ups in some major cities are testing that Zero Covid strategy just weeks before the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The city of Anyang in Henan province on Monday night told its five million residents not to leave their homes or drive cars on the roads, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
Last week, the one million people in Yuzhou — also a city in Henan — were told to stay at home. Xi’an, home to 13 million people, is in its third week of lockdown.
China reported 110 new local virus cases on Tuesday, a tiny figure compared with the hundreds of thousands emerging daily in global hotspots such as the United States.
But they are a cause of alarm for Chinese authorities as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Games, with the event already expected to have tight coronavirus safety protocols.
Hong Kong, which has some of the toughest coronavirus border restrictions in the world, also ramped up its curbs on Tuesday to fight an Omicron outbreak, shutting kindergartens and primary schools until early February.
The same day, Japan extended until the end of next month a strict Covid border policy that bars almost all new foreign arrivals.
Japanese authorities also announced the reopening of mass vaccination centres as they fight an Omicron-fuelled surge.
Health experts maintain vaccines are among the most potent tools available against the pandemic. But the deep scepticism and often violent opposition to jabs in many countries came into sharp focus last week when Australia cancelled the visa of the world’s top men’s tennis player over Covid shot requirements.
The unjabbed, vaccine-sceptic Novak Djokovic won a legal challenge against the government on Monday, however, and is looking to defend his Australian Open title despite an outpouring of anger in the country over his exemption.
“I can imagine some people will be pretty angry about it,” said 22-year-old fan Harrison Denicolo, who felt Djokovic should be allowed to play.