COVID-19 Pandemic Still Poses a Danger Despite Lower Case Rates, Says WHO 
A COVID-19 vaccination being administered in Senegal.

COVID-19 affiliated deaths last week were the lowest on record globally since the pandemic began two years ago. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) today emphasized that the pandemic remains a public health emergency and we must not drop our guards.

“This is the moment to work even harder to save lives,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, at a press briefing on Wednesday in Geneva. 

“This virus has over time become more transmissible and it remains deadly, especially for the unprotected and unvaccinated that don’t have access to health care and antivirals. The best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated and boosted when recommended,” he said. 

The briefing comes at the end of a meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee convened under the International Health Regulations (IHR). The committee discussed the capacities of states to respond to the pandemic, the problem of vaccine inequity, reduced testing and monitoring, and raised concerns about the inappropriate use of antivirals that may give impetus to drug-resistant variants. 

Ukraine and Ethiopia 

In the past 50 days since theRussia invasion of Ukraine, 4.6 million refugees have fled the country, and thousands of civilians, including children, have died, and there have been 119 verified attacks on health care workers.

Dr Tedros said that there is a need for humanitarian corridors to enable the delivery of medical supplies, food and water and the evacuation of civilians. He added that to date, the WHO had only received about half of the funding needed to support Ukraine for the first three months.  

Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s Executive Director of Health Emergencies, said that there was a high risk of chemical contamination and exposure due to attacks, as well as compromised infrastructure associated with the chemical production, nuclear weapons and energy production.

Dr Michael Ryan at the WHO Press Briefing.

“We’ve been doing training and other support to the authorities in Ukraine in preparation for such an event. This is very different from the intentional use of chemicals as a weapon in war, which is against international Law and is a war crime,” said Ryan. This comes on the back of reports of the use of chemical weapons in Mariupol. 

With respect to Ethiopia, Tedors said that the siege by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces continues to avert the humanitarian calamity and thousands of people from dying. Tedros, who is an Ethiopian and a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the Tigray crisis is one of the most alarming humanitarian crises of our times.

“But the world is not treating the human race the same way. Some are more equal than others,” he said referring to the negligible attention received by Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Libya versus the attention that is meted to Ukraine currently. 

Newer variants

According to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Technical lead on COVID-19,  the new sub-variants of the Omicron variant– BA.4 and BA.5– have been reported from a number of countries, including South Africa, in Europe. She said that more sequencing and concerted global efforts to track and share the data on the virus are needed to understand the characteristics of the variants. 

Responding to the concerns about the reduced testing and tracking of COVID-19 cases, Ryan said that it was important to track the virus as it went “underground”.

“It will be very, very, very short-sighted at this time to assume that lower numbers of cases mean an absolute lower risk,” he said.

 “This virus has surprised us before… We need to do our jobs and track this virus as best we can while people get back to living as normal a life as possible. We in the scientific and public health community need to continue to track this virus closely in every single country.” 

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove,WHO’s Technical lead for COVID-19,

 Van Kerkhove added that the committee which met today outlined three main scenarios in the modified Strategic Preparedness, Readiness, and Response Plan (SPRRP) publication: a best case, a worst case, and a base case in terms of outlining what virus evolution and changes and how our countermeasures will react or react to those. There is also a fourth scenario, called ‘reset’ where there is so much change in the virus there will be a population that is susceptible again, and “it resets us.”

Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate 

The updated SPRRP report highlights the need to achieve national COVID-19 vaccination targets in line with global WHO recommendations of at least 70% of all countries’ populations vaccinated by the start of July 2022.

“Countries really must start looking at their data breakdown by age and sex,” said Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s Chief Scientist, while highlighting the importance of boosting the population over the age of 60. 

Swaminathan added that a majority of countries plan to meet the 70% target, but a handful of countries have set their goal at less than 40%. “

Many of these countries have competing health priorities and so we need to make sure that as COVID vaccine uptake is expanded, scaled up, strengthened, and routine immunization services are also strengthened,” said Swaminathan.

Swaminathan mentioned that COVAX has the capability to cater to the vaccination needs of the vulnerable population, but there needs to be more focus on making sure the older, more vulnerable population is catered to and not left out despite the inequitable vaccine situation currently. 

“The inequity is not just in the overall distribution of vaccines, it is also occurring within countries in terms of not reaching those most likely to benefit from the vaccine and that’s particularly acute,” said Ryan.

He added that while 85% of the population over 60 years of age in Europe is fully vaccinated, the number for the same metric stands at 25% in Africa. 

“If we fail to vaccinate everyone, if we fail to continue diagnosing, if we fail to find the people who can benefit from treatment, then we will fail in the future, and in the next pandemic. So our success now will determine a successful future,” Ryan said. 

Image Credits: Flickr – Trinity Care Foundation, Georges Yameogo..

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