WHO chief voices concern that Omicron is leading to a "tsunami" of cases

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (File photo)

WHO chief voices concern that Omicron is leading to a "tsunami" of cases

Geneva, December 30, 2021

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has voiced concern that the Omicron variant of COVID-19, being more transmissible and circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a "tsunami" of cases.

This would continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse and again disrupt lives and livelihoods, he said at a press conference here on Thursday.

"This virus will continue to evolve and threaten our health systems if we don’t improve the collective response. Right now, Delta and Omicron are twin threats that are driving up cases to record numbers, which again is leading to spikes in hospitalisations and deaths," Ghebreuesus said.

"The pressure on health systems is not only because of new COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalisation but also a large number of health workers are getting sick themselves. The unvaccinated are many times more at risk of dying from either variant.

"Omicron is moving so quickly, in addition to vaccination, public health social measures are also needed to stem the wave of infection, protect health workers and systems, open up societies and keep children in school," he said.

Ghebreyesus said that he still remained optimistic that 2022 could be the year in which the world ends the acute stage of the pandemic but also charts a path to stronger health security.

"Building on the successes and failures we must not only share vaccines faster and more equitably with COVAX and AVAT, we must support countries in manufacturing and rolling them out to everyone. And access to new treatments must also follow," he said.

Ghebreyesus began by recalling how, two years ago, COVID-19 had emerged as a new global threat.

"Although we had little information, we had enough experience and expertise to know that this looked serious. Early on we worked out that beating this new health threat – a new coronavirus potentially capable of spreading quickly around the globe – would require three things. Science to both understand the pathogen and find solutions to beating it, and solidarity to share and deliver those tools wisely and equitably. Science. Solutions. Solidarity," he said.

He went on to list the major successes achieved by WHO in responding to the crisis.

"However, while science delivered, politics too often triumphed over solidarity. While there were 1.8 million recorded deaths in 2020, there were 3.5 million in 2021 and we know the actual number is much higher. This is not to mention to the millions of people dealing with long-term consequences from the virus.

"Populism, narrow nationalism and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, by a small number of countries undermined equity, and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants.

"Misinformation and disinformation, often spread by a small number of people, have been a constant distraction, undermining science and trust in lifesaving health tools," he said.

"In the huge waves of cases currently seen in Europe and in many countries around the world, misinformation which has driven vaccine hesitancy is now translating to the unvaccinated disproportionally dying.

"It is vitally important that the established Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens can develop a pathway for the scientific research of pathogens, including for the origins of SARS-CoV-2. And we hope to see progress quickly in the New Year," he said.

Ghebreyesus said there was a need for innovative solutions to reaching vulnerable communities that have not received vaccination yet because the primary doses are the most important for people to develop immunity.

"Bottom-up microplanning with strong community engagement and mobile vaccination teams, which have been highly effective in ridding most of the world of polio, are another way to get vaccines to the hard-to-reach," he said.

He said WHO would support countries as they look to improve access to COVID-19 tools and catch up with routine immunisation.

"Mental health must also be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.

"At the G7 and G20 this year, I challenged leaders to ensure that by the end of this year, countries have vaccinated 40% of their populations and 70% by the middle of 2022. 92 Member States, out of 194, missed the 40% target. This is due to a combination of limited supply going to low-income countries for most of the year and then subsequent vaccines arriving close to expiry and without key parts - like the syringes!

"And, in the case of about 20 countries, supply chain and distribution issues are also impacting rollouts. 40% was doable. It’s not only a moral shame, it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate.

"In the year ahead, I call for leaders of government and industry to walk the talk on vaccine equity both by ensuring consistent supply and helping to get vaccinations actually into people. Vaccine supply, for now at least, is improving although the emphasis on boosters in rich countries could cause low-income countries to go short again.

"I call on leaders of rich countries and manufacturers to learn the lessons of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and now Omicron and work together to reach the 70% vaccination coverage," he said.

Ghebreyesus said this was the time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by ending global vaccine inequity.

"I want governments, industry and civil society to work with us on a campaign that targets 70% vaccine coverage in every country by the start of July. I also want to ensure COVID-19 care pathways with new treatments are available in every single country. And to ensure people get on treatment at the optimum time, we need to get tests everywhere. Ending health inequity remains the key to ending the pandemic," he said.

Ghebreyesus said that, as the pandemic dragged on, it is possible that new variants could evade the countermeasures and become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations.

"The Technical Advisory Groups for Virus Evolution and on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition continue to review evidence of the variants and analyse the performance of COVID-19 vaccines against them.

"Any new vaccine update would potentially mean a new supply shortage, so it’s important that we focus on building up local manufacturing supply to help end this pandemic and prepare for future ones," he said.

"One way to increase production of lifesaving tools is to pool technology," he said.

"Sharing technology and know-how, as well as waiving the intellectual property rights around COVID-19 tools should have happened early on in the pandemic. But it’s never too late to come together to do the right thing," he said.

"This is the moment for leaders to banish the politics of populism and self-interest, which are derailing the COVID-19 response and threaten to undermine the response to the inevitable next disease X.

While 2021 has been hard, I ask everyone to make a New Year’s resolution to get behind the campaign to vaccinate 70% by the middle of 2022. We have 185 days to the finish line of achieving 70% by the start of July 2022. And the clock starts now!

"If we drive this campaign together, we’ll all be in a much better place by this time next year," he added.

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