The world smashed a record number of Covid infections in a week, an AFP tally revealed Wednesday, as the World Health Organisation warned that Omicron poses a "very high" risk and could yet overwhelm healthcare systems.
The highly transmissible variant propelled the United States, France and Denmark into fresh records on Wednesday. The AFP tally showed registered infections were up 37 percent to 6.55 million globally from December 22 to 28 compared to the previous seven-day period.
They were the highest figures since the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020, underscoring the blistering pace of Omicron transmission, with tens of millions of people facing a second consecutive year of restrictions dampening New Year's Eve celebrations.
The surge, currently worst in Europe, is forcing governments to walk a tightrope between imposing restrictions designed to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed and the need to keep economies and societies open two years after the virus first emerged in late 2019.
The United States, where Omicron is already overwhelming hospitals, recorded its highest-ever seven-day average of new cases at 265,427, according to a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina tweeted that the count was likely the "tip of the iceberg" with the true number of cases likely far higher, because of a shortage of tests.
France registered a new daily record of more than 200,000 cases – more than double the number recorded on Christmas Day – and extended into January the closure of nightclubs.
In Denmark, which currently has the world's highest rate of infection per person, recorded a fresh record of 23,228 new infections, which authorities attributed in part to the large numbers of tests carried out after Christmas celebrations.
'Very high' Omicron risk
Studies suggest Omicron, now the dominant strain in some countries, carries a reduced risk of being admitted to hospital, but the World Health Organisation still urged caution.
"The overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high," the UN health agency said. "Consistent evidence shows that the Omicron variant has a growth advantage over the Delta variant with a doubling time of two to three days."
More than 5.4 million people around the world have died from Covid-19, but over the last week the number of deaths averaged 6,450 a day, the AFP tally said, the lowest since October 2020.
In Europe, where more than 3.5 million cases have been recorded in the last seven days, Greece banned music in bars and restaurants until January 16, including on New Year's Eve.
French lawmakers were to start debating a new law that will only allow those vaccinated to enter restaurants, cinemas, museums and other public venues – no longer those showing proof of a negative Covid test.
Germany has already forced sports competitions behind closed doors and shut nightclubs, limiting private gatherings to 10 vaccinated people – or two households where any unvaccinated people are present.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said around 90 percent of coronavirus patients in intensive care units had not had a booster jab, defending his decision not to clamp down on festivities.
The high take-up of boosters in England "is allowing us to go ahead with New Year in the cautious way that we are," he said despite new closures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
New Year's Eve cancelled
In Asia, Vietnam – an export-reliant economy long seen as a success story – reported economic growth for 2021 at a 30-year low of just 2.58 percent, as the pandemic takes its toll.
Armed police in Jingxi in southern China, near the border with Vietnam, paraded four alleged violators of Covid rules through the streets, state media reported, a practice that was banned but which has resurfaced in the struggle to enforce a zero-Covid policy.
Mexico City's mayor on Tuesday cancelled the capital's massive New Year's Eve celebrations as a preventative measure after a rise in Covid-19 cases.
In Ukraine, three people died after a candle lit by a hospital employee in memory of a patient who died of the virus, started a fire in an intensive care unit in the western town of Kosiv.
"Ignorance of the elementary laws of physics and disregard for safety rules have led to irreparable losses," the emergencies services said, describing the incident as a "terrible mistake."
by Kenan Augeard with AFP Bureaus