The emergence and subsequent spread of the Omicron variant has marked a new stage in the Covid pandemic, which could be reaching its end in Europe, the director of the continent’s World Health Organization branch has said.
“It is plausible that the pandemic is approaching its end in the region,” Hans Kluge told AFP. “Once the Omicron wave calms down, there will be a few weeks or months of collective immunity, either because of the vaccine or because people will have been immunised by recent infection.”
It is therefore important to “minimise disruption and to protect vulnerable people,” rather than focusing on reducing the spread of the virus, he added.
It came after leading epidemiologist and Conseil scientifique Professor Arnaud Fontanet told France Inter last week: “We have the impression that the peak [of this Covid wave] is passing before our eyes.”
Similarly, as he announced a calendar of dates for the easing of lockdown restrictions with Health Minister Olivier Véran, Prime Minister Jean Castex said: “This exceptional wave is not finished, but I believe that I can say that the situation is beginning to get better.”
Omicron is expected to infect up to 60% of people in Europe by March. As of January 18, 15% of Covid cases in the 53 countries under the jurisdiction of WHO/Europe belonged to the Omicron variant, which is now dominant within the EU.
Dr Kluge did however urge people to remain cautious, saying that we are not “in an epidemic era. This would mean that we would be able to predict what is going to happen, but this virus has surprised us more than once. We must therefore be prudent.”
A view not shared by all
Dr Kluge’s optimistic stance is not shared by epidemiologist Professor Renaud Piarroux, who told Franceinfo that: “By the spring, everyone will have been persuaded that it’s all over, but not me.”
Prof Piarroux, who works at the Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière, agrees that the Covid situation should improve as we move into spring, but is concerned about the emergence of new variants.
“I believe that we have passed the peak [of this wave] in Ile-de-France since the number of cases is lower this week than it was 10 days ago,” he said. “In the rest of the country the number of cases is still very high. In all, as of January 20, there had been 5.6 million cases in France since the beginning of the year.
“Hospitals are still struggling. I think that we talk about it less because we are used to these crisis situations now. Serious forms of the virus are rarer but we have almost as many patients in hospital as at the peak of the first three waves and many more than in the fourth.
“Generally, what has really changed is the perception of the epidemic. If you tell everyone that it is not serious and that everything is fine, no one will want to hear about it anymore.”
‘We do not know how Omicron will act’
Prof Piarroux added that this waning interest in forecasts for the future of the pandemic has been fuelled by public frustration and a growing apathy on the part of the media, which now often neglects to report every detail of the situation and its potential outcomes.
“It is also a perception that has been driven by the government,” he added. “We are keeping schools open as if to say: ‘Look, we have saved everyone’. Even doctors are fed up with it. They prefer to look at the most optimistic forecasts even though they know that it is also necessary to prepare for more difficult scenarios.”
Prof Piarroux also pointed out that although deaths are lower now than they were this time last year – at 200-250 per day as opposed to 300-400 – the numbers are still significant.
“But no one talks about it. We don’t want to see it.”
When asked whether herd immunity could be a realistic possibility in the coming months, Prof Piarroux said that the population is already largely protected from serious illness by the vaccines, but “will this immunity allow us to resist new variants?
“Omicron shows us that there can still be a significant wave, at least with regards to transmission, in a context where nearly the whole population is vaccinated or has contracted the virus.”
He agreed that Omicron numbers are falling across most severely affected countries and that that is a cause for optimism, but added “it is afterwards that we will have a problem.”
Prof Piarroux is not convinced that Covid will become a seasonal illness, as some experts have suggested in the past, as “I don’t see how anyone can know, firstly because Delta has not disappeared. Also because we do not know how Omicron will act.
“I don’t know whether another variant will arrive either. If that happens, I am not sure that it would be less virulent than Omicron. In any case, the infectiousness of these coronaviruses is a big problem. In a normal flu epidemic, only 10% of the population is affected each season. With Omicron the scale has changed.
‘Zero Covid strategy has failed’
“I do not think that people will jump at the chance of a fourth vaccine dose and so we will once again have, in four to six months’ time, a population at risk of spreading the virus.
“A ‘zero Covid’ strategy has failed, apart from in China. This strategy could have been attempted after the first wave when the virus was less contagious and less virulent.
But “we have left too much room for the virus to proliferate and mutate. Many countries who were controlling the situation now find themselves in trouble.
“But on the other hand, the strategy of living with the virus is not a global success either. We see now that it means that waves will come one after the other.
“If in summer 2020 we had known that we were going to leave the virus to spread, that we would have an awful winter with 300-400 deaths each day, then that vaccination was only a temporary solution, I am not sure that people would have been thrilled at the idea.”