European Countries Need to Join Forces to Confront Omicron

13/01/2022

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An RWTH scientist, who is member of a multidisciplinary team, calls for more internationally coordinated action to reduce the number of COVID infections.

 

A multidisciplinary international team of more than 30 European researchers has joined forces to issue a statement on combating the SARS-CoV-2 omicron variant. The statement was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) on January 11, 2022. Dr. André Calero Valdez from RWTH’s Department of Communication Science is involved in the initiative.

In their call for concerted action, the authors warn that Omicron continues to be a significant cause for concern, despite headlines suggesting that Omicron causes a milder form of COVID-19. Consequently, they call for immediate action to reduce the number of infections, protect children, and continue the vaccination campaign.

Overwhelmed Healthcare Systems

Due to immune evasion by omicron, several countries are currently experiencing a sharp increase in incidence rates, threatening already overburdened healthcare systems in Europe. Claims such as "everyone will eventually contract Omicron" suggest that it no longer matters whether protective measures are being taken. However, if people stop caring about protecting themselves from COVID-19, this could lead to an even more rapid spread of the disease. Proven evidence-based measures are still effective in reducing infections, according to the researchers. The international team led by RWTH researcher André Calero Valdez present three key reasons why immediate action is needed.

First, reducing infection rates will decrease the burden on hospitals. This is critical to protecting our already burdened healthcare workforce and healthcare systems. Reducing case rates will also help protect critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to staff shortages due to illness, quarantine, and self-isolation. The measures needed to achieve these goals are well established and scientifically validated.

Protecting Children

Second, it is important to protect children, as most of them are not yet vaccinated. Hospital capacity for children is limited, and the number of hospitalizations of children is not as systematically recorded and reported as that of adults. "Hospital capacity for children may reach its limits if infection rates increase too rapidly. Therefore, it is important to reduce the number of infections and better monitor pediatric hospital capacity," says author Emil Iftekhar of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization.

Children's education and well-being are essential. To ensure both, schooling should continue in the safest possible environment. To make this possible, a comprehensive testing strategy is essential, but also, for example, compliance with high ventilation standards and the wearing of face masks. School closures may be considered necessary, but should be seen as a last resort and compensated for by alternative forms of instruction such as distance learning. In this context, the research team highlights the opportunities provided by a close dialogue and collaboration on best practices among European countries, which could be supported by the European Commission or the European Regional Office of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Third, lower infection rates are necessary to buy time to get more people vaccinated. Vaccination, in particular the extra protection provided by the third dose, helps to significantly reduce the number of severe cases. "This protects even against the Omicron variant," emphasizes Professor Paul Wilmes of the University of Luxembourg and co-author of the statement. "Fresh vaccination even protects against infection to some extent."

Finally, collaboration is also critical to global immunization efforts. "The current situation highlights the importance of supporting low- and middle-income countries, for example through initiatives such as 'Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)' and 'COVID-19 Vaccine Access Facility (COVAX)'. This will not only help prevent the emergence of new variants, but should be a matter of course in the spirit of solidarity," says André Calero Valdez.

The publication is available on the BJM website at: Europe Must Come Together to Confront Omicron