President Vladimir Putin has warned Russians they have two weeks to prepare for a fresh wave of coronavirus infections driven by the omicron virus after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a “west-to-east tidal wave” of the super-contagious variant that could infect more than half of the Europeans in the next two months.
“We see what is happening in the world,” Putin told a meeting of cabinet ministers on January 12. “We have at least a couple of weeks to prepare.”
Russia, Europe’s worst-hit country in terms of COVID-19 deaths, has lifted nearly all of the restrictions designed to limit new cases, despite the rapidly rising number of omicron infections.
The country found itself in an “extremely difficult situation,” Putin said, instructing regional and federal authorities to take measures to curtail the impact of omicron.
Putin’s warning came a day after Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, warned that more than half the population of the continent will likely be infected by March, in what he called a new “west-to-east tidal wave” sweeping across the continent.
Kluge called on countries with no previous rises in cases of the omicron strain to rapidly introduce precautionary measures and prioritize vaccinating at-risk populations.
There is a “closing window of opportunity” for countries to prevent their health systems from being overwhelmed, he warned.
The WHO’s European region covers 53 countries and territories, including several in Central Asia, and Kluge said omicron was fast becoming the dominant variant in the western countries and is now spreading to the Balkans.
Several countries in Europe and Central Asia have already reported an explosion in infections.
In Southeastern Europe, Bulgaria reached a record-high number of new infections at 7,062 on January 12, official data showed.
Bulgaria is the European Union’s least vaccinated member state, with just over 28 percent of the 6.9 million inhabitants fully vaccinated.
Infections have seen a spike since the beginning of the year, surpassing a previous peak set in late October.
The total death toll is 31,761, with 89 more deaths over the past 24 hours.
Despite the rising number of cases, anti-vaccine protests, organized by the ultranationalist Revival party, are expected in Sofia on January 12 despite appeals by the new centrist government to vaccine-skeptic Bulgarians to get the jab.
In Central Asia, neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan also reported spikes in new cases on January 12 as both countries said the omicron variant of the virus was now spreading on their territories.
Kyrgyzstan reported its first omicron cases on January 12, and registered a total of 465 new coronavirus infections — a five-month high.
Kazakh health authorities reported the same day that the country had registered over 8,000 cases from the last seven days, almost three times more than in the previous seven-day period.
The World Bank, meanwhile, provided a fresh assessment of the coronavirus pandemic on the world economy, predicting that global economic growth will decelerate in 2022 as omicron risks exacerbating labor shortages and supply-chain backups.
In its latest Global Economic Prospects report, it cut its forecast for world economic growth this year to 4.1 percent after the 5.5 percent rebound last year.
The warnings came exactly two years after the announcement of the first person dying of a virus that later was identified as COVID-19. The death was that of a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, China, where the illness was first detected.
Since January 11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to nearly 5.5 million.