EU health ministers meet as Omicron cases rise in Europe

AFP , Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

EU health ministers met on Tuesday as national governments step up measures to try to curb the Omicron Covid-19 variant spreading across Europe as winter closes in.

EU Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides
European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides attends a press conference on the Global Gateway at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on December 01, 2021. AFP

The gathering was expected to aim for greater coordination of bloc-wide measures in response, such as travel recommendations, and to hear pleas to accelerate vaccinations.

"I will be calling on all health ministers to close the immunisation gap to increase their vaccination rollout programmes and adhere to non-pharmaceutical measures (like) wearing masks and social distancing," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said as she went into the meeting.

"We still don't know everything about Omicron," German Health Minister Jens Spahn said as he joined EU counterparts in Brussels.

"Consequently, travel restrictions (into the EU) are important so as to keep the incidence of the new variant in Europe and in Germany as low as possible," he said.

Member states retain final say on their individual health-related decisions, raising the prospect of a patchwork of restrictions across the 27-nation European Union as Christmas and ski trips loom.

The Omicron issue is the first order of business for an EU summit next week, on December 15 and 16, according to a draft agenda seen by AFP.

While questions about Omicron's severity and ability to escape immunity cannot be answered for a couple more weeks, initial data confirm its high transmissibility.

For instance, Denmark on the weekend reported a tripling of confirmed Omicron cases within 48 hours. And former EU member Britain identified 336 cases as of Monday  doubling in 48 hours.

First detected in southern Africa two weeks ago, Omicron cases are now recorded in more than 40 countries.

Most of those cases initially were tracked to travellers from Africa, but now there are clusters of infections suggesting community spread.

Dominant strain in months 

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Monday there were a total 212 Omicron cases across the EU and in associated countries Iceland and Norway.

The biggest number of cases were in Portugal with 34, Denmark with 32, France on 25 and 19 in Norway.

Given its exponential rise, the ECDC has said it expects Omicron to become the dominant strain in Europe within months.

While the EU is putting greater emphasis on vaccinations, there is realisation that jabs alone are not enough.

As well as reinforcing the use of masks, social distancing and adequate ventilation, the EU is advancing with Covid-19 treatments.

On Tuesday, the European Commission approved another of those synthetic treatments for critical patients, sold as Actemra or RoActemra by Roche, according to the Swiss-based company.

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