The total number of COVID-19 cases registered worldwide on Friday passed 300 million, with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2’s rapid spread setting new infection records in dozens of countries over the past week.
Thirty-four countries have in the past seven days recorded their highest number of weekly cases since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including 18 nations in Europe and seven in Africa, according to an Agence France-Presse count based on official figures.
While far more contagious than previous variants, Omicron appears to cause less severe illness than its predecessors.
Even as it spurred the world to a record 13.5 million cases in the past week alone — 64 percent higher than the previous seven days — the global average of deaths dropped 3 percent.
France’s public health authority on Friday said that the risk of hospitalization was about 70 percent lower for Omicron, citing data from Canada, Israel, the UK and the US.
However with a global average of 2 million new cases being detected daily, experts have said that that the sheer numbers threaten to overwhelm health systems.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that Omicron should not be categorized as mild, as it “is hospitalizing people and it is killing people.”
“In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick, that it is overwhelming health systems around the world,” he said.
Omicron’s dizzying spread since being detected six weeks ago has prompted many nations to push harder for more vaccinations and some to clamp down with restrictions.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that access to the country’s bars and restaurants would be limited to those who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the virus and can also provide a negative test result.
However, people who have received a booster shot would be exempted from the test requirement.
In Austria, Chancellor Karl Nehammer tested positive for COVID-19.
“No cause for worry, I’m fine,” he said. “I continue to plead: Get vaccinated.”
As cases skyrocket in the US — which also broke its daily caseload record this week — US President Joe Biden said that COVID-19 “as we are dealing with it now is not here to stay ... but having COVID in the environment — here and in the world — is probably here to stay.”
In India, Omicron-led rising case numbers have brought fears of a return to the country’s darkest pandemic days last year, when thousands were dying of COVID-19 every day.
Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at India’s Ashoka University who has worked on COVID-19 infection modeling, said that “this could potentially stress out healthcare systems to levels comparable to or worse than the second wave.”
However, Kolkata’s High Court rejected a bid to cancel a major Hindu festival, despite fears the virus could spread rapidly among the 500,000 expected attendees.
“People from all states in the country will attend the religious festival and take a holy dip,” environmentalist Subhash Dutta said. “They may carry variant viruses and this religious festival may end up being the biggest superspreader in the coming days.”
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