The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organization’s chief said Tuesday, cautioning against a narrative that the the Omicron variant is risk-free.
‘This pandemic is nowhere near over,’ chief of the UN health body Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.
Tedros warned against dismissing the coronavirus Omicron variant – which has spread like wildfire around the globe since it was first detected in southern Africa in November – as mild.
Omicron is much more contagious than previous strains but seems to cause less serious disease in patients.
That has triggered a debate on the virus passing from being a pandemic to becoming endemic – with the implication that the danger will have passed.
But the WHO has warned that the sheer numbers of people infected will mean many vulnerable people are still falling seriously ill and dying.
Experts have also warned that allowing Covid-19 to spread out of control dramatically increases the chance on new variants emerging.
The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, the chief of the World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (pictured last week) said Tuesday, cautioning against a narrative that the fast-spreading Omicron variant is risk-free
‘Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,’ Tedros said. ‘Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalisations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities.’
He said there were indications that the Omicron-fuelled surge of Covid cases may have peaked in some countries.
This, he said, ‘gives hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with, but no country is out of the woods yet.’
Tedros said there was an urgent need to remove the pressure building on health systems, especially in countries that still have low vaccination coverage.
‘Now is not the time to give up and wave the white flag,’ he said. ‘We can still significantly reduce the impact of the current wave by sharing and using health tools effectively, and implementing public health and social measures that we know work.’
Data indicate that existing Covid vaccines are less effective in protecting against Omicron transmission than against previous strains.
But Tedros stressed it remained vital to ensure broader, more equitable access to the jabs.
‘Vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection and transmission of Omicron than they were for previous variants, but they still are exceptionally good at preventing serious disease and death,’ he said.
Health experts warn that allowing Covid to spread unabated in some places dramatically increases the chance of new, more dangerous variants emerging.
‘With the incredible growth of Omicron globally, new variants are likely to emerge,’ Tedros cautioned.
But the head of emergencies at the WHO also said that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic – deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns – could be over this year if the huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly.
Dr. Michael Ryan, speaking during a separate discussion on vaccine equity hosted by the World Economic Forum said ‘we may never end the virus’ because such pandemic viruses ‘end up becoming part of the ecosystem.’
But ‘we have a chance to end the public health emergency this year if we do the things that we’ve been talking about,’ he said.
WHO has slammed the imbalance in COVID-19 vaccination between rich and poor countries as a catastrophic moral failure. Fewer than 10% of people in lower-income countries have received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Ryan told the virtual gathering of world and business leaders that if vaccines and other tools aren’t shared fairly, the tragedy of the virus, which has so far killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide, would continue.
‘What we need to do is get to low levels of disease incidence with maximum vaccination of our populations, so nobody has to die,’ Ryan said.
‘The issue is: It’s the death. It’s the hospitalizations. It’s the disruption of our social, economic, political systems that’s caused the tragedy – not the virus.’
Pictured: An football fan receives the vaccine against coronavirus disease (COVID -19) at a vaccination centre, before watching an Africa Cup of Nations football match between on January 12, 2022. The WHO has consistently warned against vaccine inequality
Ryan also waded into the growing debate about whether COVID-19 should be considered endemic, a label some countries like Spain have called for to help better live with the virus, or still a pandemic – involving intensified measures that many countries have taken to fight the spread.
‘Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people; endemic HIV; endemic violence in our inner cities. Endemic in itself does not mean good. Endemic just means it’s here forever,’ he said.
Public health officials have warned it is highly unlikely COVID-19 will be eliminated and say it will continue to kill people, though at much lower levels, even after it becomes endemic.
Fellow panelist Gabriela Bucher, executive director of the anti-poverty organization Oxfam International, cited the ‘enormous urgency’ of fairer distribution of vaccines and the need for large-scale production.
She said resources to fight the pandemic were being ‘hoarded by a few companies and a few shareholders.’
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, decried the ‘total collapse of global cooperation and solidarity’ over the last two years, saying it was ‘totally unacceptable’ that only 7% of Africa’s population was fully vaccinated.
He also sought to douse the belief among some that vaccine hesitancy is widespread in Africa, citing studies that say 80% of the continent’s populations were ready to get shots if the vaccines were available.
The comments came on the second day of the online alternative to the annual World Economic Forum gathering, which was postponed over pandemic health concerns.
In speeches at the event, world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed approaches to the pandemic.
He said his country, which quickly rolled out a widespread vaccination campaign, has a strategy of being ‘at the forefront of the medicines and the vaccines’ against COVID-19.
Citing advanced research in Israel, Bennett said, ‘We want to be first in the world to know how vaccines and the new variants respond to one another.’
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said separately that his country had high levels of vaccination because society values protecting the elderly and vulnerable. He plans to keep stringent border controls in place until the end of February.
He said he was trying to balance restrictions with keeping the economy open but that ‘so-called zero COVID policy against the omicron variant is not possible nor appropriate.’