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EU health agency says not enough time for vaccination alone to halt Omicron

European Commission president warns Omicron variant could become dominant in Europe next month, but adds bloc has ample vaccines; WHO says variant likely present in most countries

A woman receives a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Bang Sue Central Vaccination Centre in Bangkok on December 15, 2021, as Thailand speeds up its roll out of booster shots to guard against the Omicron variant. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)
A woman receives a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Bang Sue Central Vaccination Centre in Bangkok on December 15, 2021, as Thailand speeds up its roll out of booster shots to guard against the Omicron variant. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

The EU health agency ECDC on Wednesday warned that vaccinations alone won’t stop the rise of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, and said “strong action” was urgently needed.

“In the current situation, vaccination alone will not allow us to prevent the impact of the Omicron variant, because there will be no time to address the vaccination gaps that still exist,” Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said in a statement, as the agency raised their risk assessment for Omicron’s impact on public health to “very high.”

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned the Omicron variant could become dominant in Europe next month, but said her 27-nation bloc had ample vaccines to fight the pandemic.

“If you look at the time it takes for new cases to double in number, it seems to be doubling every two or three days. And that’s massive. We’re told that by mid-January, we should expect Omicron to be the new dominant variant in Europe,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament, pointing to scientific data.

“But over the last year, we’ve worked hard and we’ve achieved a great deal and that is why Europe is in a better position now to fight the virus,” she said.

Von der Leyen insisted there were “enough vaccine doses for every European now” as EU countries push to deliver booster jabs to combat the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.

“We’re now in a position to produce 300 million doses of the vaccine per month here in Europe,” she said.

A man receives a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in a vaccination clinic set up at St Columba’s Church in Sheffield on December 15, 2021 as the UK steps up the country’s booster drive to fight a “tidal wave” of Omicron. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)

“We have contracts that ensure that we’ll receive vaccines once they’re adapted to the new variant as soon as possible. And we’re told that it’ll take around 100 days to adapt the vaccines we have.”

So far, 66.6 percent of the EU population have had two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and 62 million had received a third booster jab, she said.

She said that “the most important thing now” is to increase overall vaccination rates, including among children, and the bloc needed to step up the battle to overcome “vaccine skepticism.”

The World Health Organization on Tuesday said Omicron was spreading at an unprecedented rate and that it was “probably” present in most countries.

Since the new, heavily mutated variant was first detected in southern Africa last month, it has been reported in 77 countries, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control in its latest report on Tuesday counted a total 2,127 confirmed Omicron cases in the EU and a handful of partner countries, with the biggest numbers in Denmark, Norway, France, Germany and Belgium.

A health official collects a COVID-19 swab test at a drive-through testing site on Bondi beach in Sydney on December 15, 2021, as rapidly-growing Omicron and Delta clusters brought more than 2,700 new cases nationally. (Photo by Mohammad FAROOQ / AFP)

Dutch primary schools will close early as Europe battles a fresh wave of infections and hospital admissions, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a major parliamentary test seeking to impose fresh Covid curbs.

Omicron now accounts for around three percent of cases in the United States, a figure that is expected to rise rapidly as has been seen in other countries.

The United States is the nation hit hardest by the pandemic, and it crossed 800,000 known Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

The Netherlands followed other European nations in reintroducing restrictions on Tuesday as Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced primary schools will shut next week and a night-time lockdown will be extended over Omicron fears.

Schools will close from December 20 instead of on December 25 due to concerns that children, among whom infection rates are the highest, could pass it on to older relatives.

France on Tuesday registered 63,405 new coronavirus cases — its highest daily total since April — even with more than 77 percent of its population having had at least one shot.

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 14: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and lawmakers participate in a moment of silence for the 800,000 American lives lost to COVID-19 on December 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

In neighboring Britain, the ruling Conservative government on Tuesday suffered a major parliamentary rebellion as almost 100 of its MPs rejected new restrictions as the country responds to Omicron.

Boris Johnson’s administration will introduce new rules on mask-wearing, daily testing to avoid isolation and vaccine passes for certain settings in England.

But many MPs from his own party believe the measures — which only passed with opposition support — are excessive and undermine basic freedoms.

Scientists have predicted the true number already infected with Omicron in Britain could be as high as 200,000 a day, while the English Premier League reported a record caseload that threatened further disruption to fixtures.

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