(CN) — Two years after the World Health Organization was first notified about emergence of the novel coronavirus, the world is seeing an explosion of new infections as the superfast-spreading but potentially less virulent omicron strain takes hold.
In the past week, 6.5 million coronavirus infections were reported around the world, the highest number ever for a single week since the Covid-19 outbreak started in early 2020 when the virus began infecting and killing people in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The WHO officially declared a pandemic in March 2020.
Record numbers are being reported in the United States, Europe and Australia. Although potentially less severe, scientists say omicron is capable of infecting people who've been vaccinated or were previously infected, a big factor in driving up the number of cases.
“I'm highly concerned that omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as [the] delta [strain], is leading to a tsunami of cases,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, on Wednesday during a news briefing from the agency's Geneva headquarters.
He said this wave of infections is putting “immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse.”
He urged governments and individuals to not downplay the severity of omicron, which was first detected in South Africa in November.
“There is this narrative now going on in which it is like it is milder or it's less severe,” he said. “We don't want people to be complacent.”
With early evidence that omicron causes less severe symptoms – and many people are reporting no symptoms – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday chose to not add new restrictions ahead of New Year's celebrations. In Europe, only the Netherlands has imposed a national lockdown, though restrictions, health passes and mask mandates are generally in place across Europe and the U.K.
The sheer number of new cases being reported is dizzying.
“I wouldn't describe it as a wave anymore when it comes to omicron,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Wednesday. “Given the figures we have been recording over the last few days in our country, I would tend to speak of a tidal wave.”
Indeed, France hit the unenviable record on Wednesday of becoming the first European nation to record more than 200,000 new cases in a single day. Huge increases – and many records – were reported in the U.K., Spain, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The U.S., meanwhile, on Tuesday reported a new high with more 312,000 cases.
These sudden spikes can be attributed in part to widespread, and often obligatory, testing of travelers and people who come into contact with infected individuals. Testing was so much in demand in the U.K., where the government said omicron accounts for 90% of cases, that testing kits were running out.
Despite a new wave starting in early November, the number of deaths linked to Covid-19 is slowly declining globally and hope is building that the omicron variant – quickly replacing delta as the dominant stain in many parts of the world – is less severe.
In the past week, about 44,000 people died from the virus, according to WHO data, bringing the total official death toll to about 5.4 million. However, the actual number of deaths caused by the virus is estimated to be far higher.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO's chief scientist, said there are reassuring signs that omicron may be much less virulent for people who have built up immunity to the virus through vaccination or an infection.
“It appears that vaccines are proving to be still protective because even though the numbers are going up exponentially in many countries, hospitalizations, and even within hospitalized people the need for ventilation, the need for particular care, that doesn't seem to be going up proportionate,” she said. “This is a good sign.”
Still, she said it remains too early to say how severe omicron is and that even vaccinated people are vulnerable to infection from omicron, in part due to waning vaccine efficiency and in part because the vaccines so far concocted may not be as good at neutralizing it.
“That is why we are seeing a lot of breakthrough infections now, especially with omicron because omicron does have the capacity to overcome the existing immunity,” she said. “That is why the numbers we are seeing around the world today are extremely high because these infections are occurring in both the vaccinated and unvaccinated people.”
Also, scientists are concerned about omicron's spread around the globe because nearly half of the world's population remains unvaccinated, leaving billions of people at risk of infection.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, said he was concerned that omicron may turn out to cause severe infections in older and more vulnerable people. Until now, he said, the new strain has mostly circulated at a high rate among younger populations.
“It's moving slowly into older age groups now and I think that's the big question in my mind,” he said. “What we haven't seen is the omicron wave fully established in the broader population, and I'm a little nervous to make positive predictions until we see how well that vaccination protection is going to work in those older and more vulnerable populations.”
“Even if the virus turns out to be on an individual basis slightly less severe than previous variants, the sheer numbers of cases, as we saw previously in Brazil, can put huge pressure on a health system,” Ryan said.
Hospitals and workplaces are already struggling in some places in Europe due to worker shortages caused by infections and people being placed into quarantine. With the huge uptick in infections caused by omicron, the U.S., U.K. and other governments are reducing the amount of time infected people are required to stay in quarantine.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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