Although more research is needed into the COVID-19 Omicron variant, Europe knows “enough to be concerned,” according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Over the past few months, the European Union had time to prepare for managing forthcoming potential health crises. Now, the new Omicron variant could put these preparations to the test.
Last week’s news about a new variant first reported in South Africa on Wednesday (24 November) put scientists and politicians on their toes once again. The cases of Omicron have been reported in several European member states already.
Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, during the press conference on Wednesday (1 December), said that “we are once more facing a very worrying epidemiological situation”.
She added that the new variant shows that “we need to be prepared, we need to act quickly, and we need to have the right tools in place for public health emergencies. This is exactly what we have been and are doing”.
What is known about Omicron?
On Friday, 26 November World Health Organisation (WHO) listed Omicron as a variant of concern (VOC) along with the Delta variant that dominates among the COVID-19 cases and three other virus variants.
The Omicron variant has many mutations, some of which are concerning, the WHO stated in their press release. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection when compared to other VOCs.
European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said that despite not knowing everything about the variant, “we know enough to be concerned”.
She said that it would take “two to three weeks” for scientists to gather information on the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of Omicron. “Our best scientists are working day and night on that,” the EU chief said.
But until then, everything needs to be done to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We know from our experience with a Delta variant that it is a race against time, therefore until we know what’s going on […] we have to do everything possible [to stop the spread],” von der Leyen said.
Emphasis was again placed on the importance of vaccination. “On the one hand, you have the virus and the variants. And on the other hand, we have vaccination and boosters. And I want the second part to win,” she said.
Will vaccines work?
Vaccines that are currently authorised in Europe work against circulating variants, but the situation with Omicron is not yet clear.
In a situation where Omicron resists vaccination von der Leyen said that there are “precautionary measures in place, scientists are working on that already, and we have in the contract the possibility to update the vaccine line”.
Vaccines can be adapted in situations where it is required. On Tuesday (30 November) at Parliament’s health committee (ENVI), Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), said: “since February last year, we put in place guidance to allow companies to fast track adaptations to the vaccine if this is needed.”
If there is a need to change existing vaccines, EMA’s chief said that they could be approved within three to four months from the start of the adaptation process.
“We’re working with international regulators, we’re working with WHO, we’re working with ECDC to ensure that we prepare for the worst even if we still hope for the best,” Cooke said.
She added that “We know that viruses mutate, and we are prepared”.
Vaccination alone is not enough
But vaccination alone is not enough, as the rising numbers in Europe have already shown. Social measures that work against any virus should be reinforced, such as masks, hand hygiene, social distancing, contact tracing, and virus sequencing.
“It is absolutely of utmost importance to contact trace, to isolate and to make sure that we do not have the spread of the variant, and to reduce the social contacts as much as possible. We don’t like it, but it is necessary, and we know it is effective,” von der Leyen said.
Authorities also say they are better prepared this time. “We’re lucky because this time we have HERA up and running,” said von der Leyen.
She added that this operational tool has all the necessary networks, connections and tools to work on Omicron.
Kyriakides added that HERA was able to react immediately. “The expert group of HERA on the variants has immediately met; they’re already supporting member states in terms of sequencing capacities,” she said. The group is working together with member states to “increase the essential genome sequencing”.
The health commissioner added that HERA is supporting member states for contact tracing where needed. “Finally, we need to look at all the tools that we have developed over the last two years, such as the monitoring of wastewaters to identify possible viruses,” Kyriakides concluded.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]