The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday issued a dire warning to Europe saying that half of the continent would be infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus within six to eight weeks.

Speaking at a news conference, WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, said, “Today the omicron variant represents a new west-to-east tidal wave, sweeping across the region on top of the Delta surge that all countries were managing until late 2021.”

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Citing a report by Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Dr Kluge further said, “more than 50 percent of the population in the region [Europe] will be infected with omicron in the next six to eight weeks.”

The WHO’s projection is based on the seven million new COVID-19 cases reported across Europe in the first week of January 2022, and on the fact that COVID-19 cases in Europe has doubled over a two-week period.

Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 cases have surged sharply both in European and Central Asian countries, aided by the highly transmissible omicron variant that studies suggest bypasses the immunity offered by two-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimes. While studies also suggest that the omicron variant produces milder symptoms than the variants that preceded it, healthcare systems across Europe and Central Asia are under “intense pressure” as case counts continue to rise.

Dr Kluge added that countries would have to devise their own response plans to the projected spike in COVID-19 cases, saying, “How each country now responds must be informed by its epidemiological situation, available resources, vaccination uptake status and socio-economic context.”

The WHO’s warning comes at a time when healthcare systems in Western European countries such as the UK and France are grappling with massive surges in COVID-19 cases. While French authorities have warned that January will be a tough month for hospitals, the UK is struggling with increasing numbers of “critical” incidents due to staff shortages and rising case counts.

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The situation in Eastern Europe is not particularly encouraging either, and many Eastern European countries have large swathes of unvaccinated people.

Given the already dire situation, the projected omicron wave could unleash havoc on healthcare systems in Europe at a scale not seen since the initial onset of the pandemic.