The omicron variant is spreading so quickly that it could account for more than half of COVID-19 cases in Europe in a few months, a key European health agency said on Thursday.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said its estimate was based on preliminary data from South Africa and the variant’s characteristics still need further study before drawing any firm conclusions.
Globally, there are at least 352 confirmed cases in 27 countries, including 70 cases in 13 European countries, according to public reports the ECDC compiled for its latest threat assessment. There is evidence of community or household spread, but there are still no reports of severe illnesses or deaths.
The agency said that travel restrictions applied to southern Africa should be reassessed regularly and the current measures may delay the variant’s spread in Europe “by two weeks, at most.”
“Given the increasing number of cases and clusters without travel history or contact with travel-related cases, it is likely that within the coming weeks the effectiveness of travel-related measures will decrease and countries should prepare for a rapid and measured de-escalation of such measures,” the agency said.
The first known sequence of the variant was uploaded to GISAID, a global repository, from Hong Kong on Nov. 22. Ten more sequences were uploaded the following day in Botswana and South Africa.
The ECDC said the variant’s mutations may reduce the effectiveness of current antibodies induced by vaccination or infection, but more data is needed.