Societal pressure from unprecedented Omicron spread can be eased through increased vaccination uptake

Press release

The Omicron variant of concern (VOC) is currently spreading with unprecedented speed and intensity across the EU/EEA, with overall reported infection rates three times higher than the highest peak during the pandemic so far. The very high numbers of infected people are exerting significant pressure in many countries around Europe through a combination of increased hospital admissions and staff shortages due to illness. Efforts should continue to increase vaccine uptake among the unvaccinated, as well as offering a booster shot after three months to all eligible adults, says the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in a new Rapid Risk Assessment released today.

Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said:

“While it is encouraging that the numbers of people falling severely ill and requiring hospital treatment have not followed the same path as Omicron cases, the virus still poses a serious threat, especially to the most vulnerable in our societies and the unvaccinated. Whilst in some Member States, the peak of infection appears to have been reached recently, the pandemic is not over.”

“Member States with the lowest vaccination rates will face the highest pressure. What Omicron shows, again, is that there is a necessity to vaccinate and a clear case for booster doses to increase protection. The more we vaccinate and boost, the more we can avoid additional hospital admissions and loss of lives. The more we vaccinate and boost, the more we can minimize disruptions for society and ensure that key sectors can continue functioning over the coming weeks and months. With an increase in immunity and more vaccination, we can expect to reach a more sustainable situation with COVID-19 circulating at manageable levels faster, but we need to be cautious with long-term predictions and the maintenance of key non-pharmaceutical interventions continues to be crucial in the immediate future to keep Omicron at manageable levels. Looking ahead, we must  maintain vigilance to detect potential future variants, and follow the latest scientific evidence to determine next steps in our common response to COVID-19. We continue to work as a priority to make sure that adapted vaccines are produced and approved as quickly as possible if needed. As always, solidarity and coordination will be our guiding principles.”

Dr Andrea Ammon, ECDC Director, said:

“There is growing recognition that the extensive preventive measures mandated across the EU/EEA have also resulted in heavy societal and economic costs. Therefore, we proposed options to adapt these measures. In order to successfully transition into what may be a post-acute phase of the pandemic, efforts should continue to increase uptake of the primary vaccination course in individuals who are currently unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. Despite the very high intensity of virus circulation in the community, countries with very high vaccination coverage are experiencing comparatively less impact in terms of intensive care need and mortality than in earlier waves. This highlights the impact that COVID-19 vaccines are having on preventing severe COVID-19 cases and deaths.”  

The cumulative uptake of a full primary COVID-19 vaccine course in the total population of the EU/EEA is increasing slowly and has reached only 70% as of 25 January 2022. The uptake of a booster dose as a supplement to the primary course, is increasing more rapidly but has still reached only 50% of the adult EU/EEA population. Overall, progress in uptake remains uneven across countries.

Modelling by ECDC estimates that the current uptake of a booster dose achieved by early January may reduce future Omicron hospital admissions by 500 000 - 800 000 across EU/EEA through restoring higher levels of vaccine protection. Extending the booster programme to all previously vaccinated individuals could reduce admissions by another 300 000 - 500 000.

In addition to continued roll-out of vaccination programmes, the maintenance of key non-pharmaceutical interventions is crucial over the immediate future in order to ensure that the intensity of Omicron circulation remains at manageable levels. These include physical distancing, consistent and correct mask wearing, avoiding crowded situations, working from home when possible, staying home when ill, and maintenance of hand and respiratory hygiene, together with good ventilation of indoors settings.

Read the assessment

Publication

Assessment of the further spread and potential impact of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant of concern in the EU/EEA, 19th update

Risk assessment -

The SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant of concern (VOC) is rapidly replacing SARS-CoV-2 Delta in most European Union/European Economic Area (EU/EEA) countries, and is broadly following a west-to-east progression.

Full statement