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Just as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that Omicron still poses “very high" risk and could overwhelm healthcare systems across the world, the highly transmissible omicron variant has taken worldwide Covid-19 cases above 1 million for a second straight day

This comes two years after reports of a mysterious pneumonia first emerged in Wuhan, the pandemic shows no signs of slowing. Covid hospitalizations are spiking from New South Wales to New York state, pressuring health systems. Overall, however, omicron appears to be triggering a lower rate of hospitalizations than earlier outbreaks, and a U.K. immunologist said the latest variant is not “the same disease we were seeing a year ago."

Rapid tests that are widely used to detect infections may miss some cases caused by omicron, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. An outbreak in China’s Xi’an eased after cases hit a record a day earlier, as residents have been asked to stay indoors and driving is banned. 

As case numbers have shot up 11 percent globally in the last week, forcing governments from China to Germany and France to find a difficult balance between anti-virus restrictions and the need to keep economies and societies open.

The Netherlands and Switzerland said Omicron had become the dominant strain in their countries, and while some studies suggested it causes milder Covid-19, the World Health Organization urged caution.

"The overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high," the UN health agency said in its Covid-19 weekly epidemiological update.

"Consistent evidence shows that the Omicron variant has a growth advantage over the Delta variant with a doubling time of two to three days."

The WHO said early data from Britain, South Africa, and Denmark -- which currently has the world's highest rate of infection per person -- suggested there was a reduced risk of hospitalisation for Omicron compared with Delta.

But it added that further data was needed to understand Omicron's severity.

And despite those studies, Omicron's rapid growth "will still result in large numbers of hospitalisations, particularly amongst unvaccinated groups, and cause widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services", warned WHO Europe's Covid Incident Manager Catherine Smallwood.

Meanwhile, Europe was again one of the hotspots for the pandemic, which is known to have claimed more than 5.4 million lives around the world. France, Britain, Greece and Portugal all reported record daily case numbers on Tuesday. France reported almost 180,000 infections over 24 hours.

To hold back the tide, many nations on the continent have brought back curbs with heavy economic and social consequences.

Contact restrictions were in place in Germany for the second year in a row heading into the New Year, as Europe's biggest economy shut nightclubs and forced sports competitions behind closed doors.

It also limited private gatherings to 10 vaccinated people -- or two households where any unvaccinated people are present.

Finland on Tuesday said it would bar unvaccinated foreign travellers from entering. Only residents, essential workers or diplomats will be exempt.

The Nordic country, like Sweden, had begun requiring negative tests for incoming non-resident travellers from Tuesday, a day after Denmark applied the same measure.

But the Belgian government's plans to introduce further restrictions were thwarted as a court suspended an order closing entertainment venues.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had announced the original measure on December 22 as Belgium saw a sharp increase in the percentage of tests showing the Omicron variant.

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