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Europe braces for the omicron wave


All right. Let's turn our attention now to how the omicron variant is affecting Europe. The World Health Organization is warning that more than half of all Europeans could catch COVID in the next six to eight weeks. In the first week of this year alone, the region saw more than 7 million cases of COVID-19, and the numbers continue to rise.

Dr. Hans Kluge is the regional director for Europe, and he is the WHO official who issued that warning. Dr. Kluge joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HANS KLUGE: Thank you so much - my pleasure.

CHANG: So - all right. Half of all Europeans in the next six to eight weeks could be infected. Can you just tell us how you're projecting that? Can you just briefly walk through what the situation is right now?

KLUGE: Absolutely. We working together - the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. And what we predict is that the European region will peak at over 12 million a day in the middle of January - very soon - although national peaks, of course, will considerably vary. So most likely, what we see as before is a west-to-east tidal wave. We see now that the omicron is starting to hit the Balkans, then the Central Asian countries. So, indeed, we expect more than 50% of the population to be infected in the next six to eight weeks.

However, important to tell is that daily deaths are not expected to increase substantially at the region level due to the less severe omicron replacing the more severe delta. But this is in relatively high-vaccinated and boosted population.

CHANG: Right.

KLUGE: So now, we're holding a little bit of breath that the omicron starts to explode in the eastern part, which has particularly the elderly, the vulnerable, unvaccinated, unboosted (ph).

CHANG: So what should Europeans be preparing for in terms of - you know, 'cause here in the U.S., we're seeing huge numbers of infections every day. Hospitals are struggling. Schools are dealing with enormous disruptions. What should Europeans be preparing for in the next month to two months?

KLUGE: Well, this is really a pivotal moment. The strategy is shifting from reducing transmission, which is no longer possible with this explosion of omicron. The strategy becomes avoiding disruption - disruption of economy, schools, health care settings - and to shield the vulnerable. But it's very important that the people take it serious. It's not a common cold. There's still a lot of uncertainty.

And we identified what we call five pandemic stabilizers. No. 1 - increase by hook and by crook the vaccination coverage. No. 2 - boost, boost, boost. No. 3 - double the number of people wearing the masks, particularly high-quality masks in high-risk settings, and the government should make it affordable. Fourth, ventilation has been under-stressed before. And, fifth, new clinical treatment protocols with new drugs coming onto the market.

CHANG: OK. I'm hearing your five points of action. But let's say you don't have enough compliance, say, on people getting boosters or people wearing their masks. Is the WHO advocating for more restrictions on activity? You speak of how you want to minimize disruptions, but is that possible in the next month to two months?

KLUGE: So we established in WHO a unit on behavioral and cultural science to study what is in the mind of the people. What are the perceptions? And what we see is that the percentage - the fraction of the people who don't want to be vaccinated, who are really anti-vax is quite small.

Most of the people, they're sitting on the fence. They have questions and, frankly speaking, legitimate questions. So there is communication. And to tailor our approaches community by community is really crucial.

CHANG: Finally, I want to talk about the phase we are at during this pandemic. I mean, the World Health Organization has been warning in recent weeks that this pandemic still has a long way to go before it can be considered endemic, say, like the flu. Can you just help me understand that? - because with so much of the world likely to be impacted by this variant, the omicron, with so many people developing immunity right now, why isn't this pandemic moving into an endemic phase?

KLUGE: Well, this virus has surprised us more than once. It's far too early to assume endemicity because endemicity, per definition, assumes a stable circulation of the virus as predictable levels of transmission. And today, we still have a huge amount of uncertainty.

CHANG: OK. So in your opinion, what do you need to see to show that COVID is becoming more predictable, if you will, and therefore that - and therefore to conclude that COVID is becoming endemic?

KLUGE: It may become endemic in due course, but saying it will happen in 2022 is a bit premature. But what we can end is the acute phase of the pandemic. So we need to see a stable circulation. And what we have in the world is that too many countries, too many populations are still unvaccinated. And the more transmission, the more chance we will be faced with yet another variant of concern. So no one is safe until everyone is safe. We need to get vaccinated, boosted and, meanwhile, also adhere to basic preventive measures.

CHANG: Dr. Hans Kluge is the regional director for WHO/Europe. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

KLUGE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "SECOND SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.