Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

Preliminary data on the risks of a new variant of concern (VOC) B.1.1.529, or Omicron, based on currently available genetic information is high, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said today in a new Threat Assessment Brief. The B.1.1.529 variant, first detected in southern Africa, is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic to date, raising serious concerns that it may significantly reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and increase the risk of reinfections.

ECDC Director Dr Andrea Ammon said:

Today we are releasing a threat assessment on the emergence of a new Sars-COV-2 variant of concern. There is still considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of this variant. At this stage, based on our experience with previous variants we must be proactive and implement measures as a precaution to buy time until we gain more knowledge. Therefore, I would like to reiterate the three key recommendations from our rapid risk assessment from the 24th of November. Firstly, it is imperative we close the immunisation gap. Secondly, booster doses should be considered for all adult individuals, prioritising persons above 40 years of age. Finally, due to the uncertainties involved with this situation, the timely reinforced implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions is now more important than ever”.

There remains an urgent need to close immunity gaps in the adult population and ensure effective and equitable coverage across countries and regions in Europe to stop any potential spread of a new variant. Countries are again urged to give utmost priority to individuals initially targeted by COVID-19 vaccination programmes that remain unvaccinated or not yet fully vaccinated. Increasing COVID-19 vaccination coverage in all eligible age groups, but particularly in the elderly, in the vulnerable, and healthcare workers should remain the priority for public health authorities.

Public health authorities should identify those with an epidemiological link to cases with the new variant or travel history to areas known to be affected to control or delay the spread of the new variant.  Genomic surveillance is of high importance for early detection of the presence and epidemiological trends of variants of concern and will provide important information to guide the response for this new variant.

On 24 November 2021, ECDC published Assessment of the current SARS-CoV-2 epidemiological situation in the EU/EEA, projections for the end-of-year festive season and strategies for response, 17th Update which highlighted that the timely implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) is critical for their success. These include the appropriate use of face masks, teleworking, operational modifications that reduce crowding on public transport, ensuring adequate ventilation in closed spaces and maintenance of hygiene measures that can be implemented immediately. Setting limits for the number of participants in social and public events during end-of-year celebrations will support physical distancing efforts. Due to the uncertainties involved with the situation concerning B.1.1.529, timely and urgently reinforced implementation of NPIs in the EU/EEA is strongly advised.

Source – ECDC (via email)