A new report has predicted that the Omicron variant will become the dominant strain of Covid-19 circulating in the European Union within weeks.
The report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has called for an immediate reduction in socialisation, including avoiding large gatherings and reducing inter-household mixing.
It was presented to the Government on Wednesday night, with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly describing the situation as “very stark”.
The report said that initially, Omicron was associated with travel, but this variant is now being detected through representative sampling in routine surveillance systems.
“This indicates that community transmission is already ongoing in EU/EEA countries and that further rapid increase in the number of Omicron VOC (variant of concern) cases is expected in the next two months,” the report said.
It said that the growth of the variant is concerning due to preliminary reports that Omicron is more transmissible and breakthrough infections among vaccinated or previously infected people are more common when compared to the Delta variant.
The report said that data is currently too limited to assess the severity of disease caused by Omicron, but it warned that even if the severity of disease caused by Omicron is equal to or lower than the severity of the Delta variant, Europe could still be in trouble.
It said that if this variant proves more transmissible, the resulting exponential growth of cases will rapidly outweigh any benefits of a potentially reduced severity.
“It is therefore considered very likely that the Omicron VOC will cause additional hospitalisations and fatalities, in addition to those already expected in previous forecasts that only take into account the Delta VOC,” the report said.
Booster doses will be vital to preventing further hospitalisations and death, according to the report.
It said that in vitro neutralisation studies, which are not yet peer-reviewed, showed a reduced neutralisation capacity of sera from vaccine recipients and convalescent sera against Omicron compared to other Covid variants.
The ECDC said that while more research is needed, booster doses will increase protection, and they should be given to most of the adult population within a short interval.
It also said that countries will have to bring down people’s contact rates “immediately” to avoid a spike in cases while the vaccine roll-out is accelerating.
“These measures include avoiding large public or private gatherings, encouraging the use of face masks, reduced contacts between groups of individuals in social or work settings, teleworking, expanded testing and strong contact tracing.
“Authorities should consider advising reduced inter-household mixing and exercising additional caution during travel and/or where intergenerational mixing is foreseen during the holiday season.”
The report also recommended that contact tracing should be prioritised for probable or confirmed cases of Omicron, irrespective of vaccination status, and everyone with symptoms should be tested.