As Omicron Detected in Canada, Brazil and US, PAHO Calls for Increased Genomic Surveillance 
PAHO Director Carissa Etienne

Following the detection of the newest WHO COVID-19 variant of concern, Omicron, in Canada and Brazil, and most recently, the US, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has urged countries to “redouble their surveillance efforts in the region, warning that it is likely that the new variant will likely be circulating in other parts of the Americas soon. 

Omicron was first identified in southern Africa late November. Concern has been raised over the fact that the variant has over 30 mutations in the spike protein, the site usually targeted by COVID-19 vaccines.

The first known US case of the variant was announced late Wednesday – a fully vaccinated person in California who returned to the country from South Africa on 22 November and tested positive seven days later. 

In addition, Canada has reported six cases of Omicron while Brazil has reported 2. Delta remains the predominant variant in the region. 

PAHO is currently working with health ministers in the region and will share guidance and updates on Omicron as it becomes available, said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne during a media briefing Wednesday. 

“Speed and transparency is most critical, but above all, we urge people to not be frightened.” 

PAHO officials also discouraged the spread of rumors surrounding the variant, and urged people to continue to get vaccinated. 

“There are many rumors saying, ‘This vaccine doesn’t work, that other vaccine doesn’t work [against Omicron]. But these are just rumors,” said PAHO’s Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa.

“Within two to three weeks, we will have more valid, accurate information about the ability to neutralize the new variant with the antibodies generated by the vaccine, but until we have more information, we should continue vaccinations.” 

PAHO Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa

COVID cases predominantly on the rise in the Americas 

Over 753,00 new COVID-19 infections and 13,000 COVID-related deaths were reported in the Americas in the past week, PAHO announced on Wednesday.

Cases in Canada and the United States remain steady but high. Infections and deaths have dropped by over 20% in Mexico.

Central America has seen a reduction in cases and deaths over the last week, with the exception of Panama. 

In South America, cases in the Southern Cone region have increased steadily over the last several weeks, while in the Andean region and Brazil, cases have plateaued. 

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, cases are on the rise in the Cayman Islands and Anguilla.  

Etienne highlighted the need for countries to sustain public health measures to limit the transmission of the virus.

“This pandemic is dynamic and the decisions we make about upholding preventive measures and expanding access to vaccines will influence how far this virus spreads.”

Vaccine inequity prolongs pandemic 

In light of fears surrounding Omicron, PAHO reiterated how vaccine inequity would continue to prolong the pandemic.

 “The more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate and change,” said Etienne. 

Only 54% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Though the WHO had established a target for countries to reach at least 40% of their population vaccinated by the end of 2021, only 20 countries in the Americas have reached the overshot that goal, while 15 countries in the region still have less than 40% vaccinated.

The vaccine inequity is evident in the region – four countries have more than 70% of their populations vaccinated, but two countries still have not reached even 20% in the Americas – Jamaica and Haiti .

Haiti has less than 1% of its people fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while Nicaragua has 17%. Both countries had failed to reach the original goal of vaccinating at least 10% of their people back in September

“While progress is being made, there is still a persistence of a situation of inequality and inequity in access,” Barbosa noted. 

Increased access to antiretroviral therapy still needed 

To commemorate World AIDS Day, 1 December, PAHO officials called for increased access to vital treatments such as antiretroviral therapy (ARV), by combating the still-existing discrimination and stigma in health care, as well as the disruptions in services due to COVID-19

“Expanding access [to HIV treatment] is only possible if we combat the persistent stigma and discrimination that keep health services out of reach from too many men who have sex with men, transgender women, and sex workers across our region,” said Etienne. 

For people living with HIV, proper ARVs can help keep their disease in check and avoid infection. However, this requires consistent access to these life-saving drugs.

Even before the pandemic, just 65% of people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy. But the pandemic has caused more countries to report partial disruptions in services.

But while the region is falling behind on the 2030 target to reduce new HIV infections and eliminate AIDS-related deaths, significant progress  has been made with new treatments for people living with AIDS. 

In order to reach the 2030 target, Etienne emphasized the need for a human-rights approach to addressing the AIDS pandemic.

“Our AIDS-elimination responses must reflect the cultural and sexual diversity, gender equality, and human rights, with active participation from communities most affected.” 

Image Credits: PAHO.

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