Two years after the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe and central Asia, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the region could be "entering a new phase in the pandemic with plausible hope for stabilisation."
"The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention," WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge said in a statement on Monday.
Nevertheless, he warned in the statement that "it is far too early to relax" because new Covid-19 variants are almost certain to emerge, Xinhua news agency reported.
"With the millions of infections occurring in the world in recent and coming weeks, coupled with waning immunity and winter seasonality, it is almost a given that new Covid-19 variants will emerge and return," he added.
The WHO official elaborated by noting the challenges variants have caused, such as "the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeping the region, from west to east."
"Omicron is displacing Delta with unprecedented speed. Less than two months since it was first discovered in South Africa, it now accounts for 31.8 per cent of cases across the European Region, up from 15 per cent the previous week, and 6.3 per cent the week before that."
While the Omicron variant "appears to cause much less severe disease than Delta," Kluge said that the region is "still seeing a rapid rise in hospitalisations due to the sheer number of infections," noting that most people needing intensive care across the region, as predicted, are unvaccinated.
"The unacceptable human cost we know: every single hour since the pandemic's onset, 99 people in the Region have lost their lives to Covid-19. We mourn the more than 1.7 million people in the European Region who are no longer with us," he added.
Although more than 1.4 billion vaccine doses have been administered in the region, Kluge said "huge disparities in access to vaccines remain."
"If 2021 was the year of vaccine production, 2022 must be the year of vaccine equity in the European region and beyond. Too many people who need the vaccine remain unvaccinated. This is helping to drive transmission, prolonging the pandemic and increasing the likelihood of new variants," he added.
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