Omicron Infection Curve ‘Staggering’ – 36 Countries Have Vaccinated Less than 10% of Citizens
WHO’s Dr Bruce Aylward

Over 15 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported globally in the past week – by far the most cases ever reported – but deaths have remained constant since last October at about 48,000 a week, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“While the number of patients being hospitalised is increasing in most countries, it’s not at the level seen in previous waves. This is possibly due to the reduced severity of Omicron as well as widespread immunity from vaccination or previous infection,” said Tedros, addressing the WHO’s weekly COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday.

However, he stressed that while Omicron may cause less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus particularly for those who are unvaccinated. 

Referring to the statement made on Tuesday by the WHO’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge,  that 50% of Europeans would be infected with Omicron in the coming weeks, WHO lead on COVID-19, Dr Maria van Kerkhove, said this was based on modelling.

“This variant is that it transmits incredibly efficiently between people,” said Van Kerkhove, but stressed that people could still protect themselves through vaccinations, masking and physical distancing.

Van Kerkhove added that the new cases were literally off the charts – the WHO had to readjust the scale of its latest graph to accommodate the explosion of cases.

WHO COVID-19 cases (11 January 2022)

WHO special advisor and COVAX representative Dr Bruce Aylward described the case increase as “absolutely staggering”. 

“We have not, in 30 years working on infectious diseases, seen an epidemic curve like this before, certainly not with a pandemic-prone virus,” he said.

“In the face of a staggering upsurge in a disease, we’re hearing two responses. One group is saying,’ Gosh, throw in the towel, let this thing immunise the world’. While the other group, led by Maria [van Kerkhove], is saying: wear a mask and get vaccinated. And the first response is the wrong choice.”

Kluge reported that there were over seven million new cases of COVID-19 in the first week of January, more than doubling over a two-week period.

“As of 10 January, 26 countries report that over 1% of their population is catching COVID-19 each week,” said Kluge.

“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the Region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks.”

Main barriers to vaccine rollouts

Dr Kate O’Brien

Thirty-six countries have vaccinated less than 10% of their populations while 90 have not reached 40%, said Tedros.

Dr Kate O’Brien, WHO Director of Immunisation and Vaccines, said the “foundational issue” hampering these countries was the constrained and uncertain supply of vaccines.

However, O’Brien cited a number of other issues including lack of financing to roll out vaccines, weak health services, conflict and other humanitarian emergencies.

Aylward decried the “dangerous narrative” emerging in many high-income countries that some lower-income countries can’t use the vaccines or did not want them.

“If you look at the map of polio or measles [elimination] and you see that the same countries that have gotten very low coverage for COVID-19 have eliminated or eradicated polio or eliminated measles or achieve very high routine immunisation for some other diseases,” said Aylward.

“We’ve made it twice as hard or three times as hard for low-income countries to be able to achieve high coverage. We did not share vaccines for six, seven, eight months. What we did share was a lot of misinformation, a lot of bad practice, a lot of false problems.”

COVAX had recently been able to increase its vaccine deliveries to low and middle-income countries and has delivered 980 million doses.

Aylward also criticised vaccine donations with short expiry dates “which make them very, very difficult to use in complex environments”.

“These countries know how to run vaccination at scale. It’s a really tough environment they’re operating in right now. How do we fix that? Number one, we have to provide full support for the financing, for the delivery, the information support, the right products, right time frames.”

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