WHO Calls For Global ‘Reality Check’ As Cases Surge And Countries Abandon Basics
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19, at the press conference on Monday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a global “reality check” as COVID-19 infections increased by 4.4 million in the past week, with countries and individuals abandoning proven methods to protect themselves.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, where we have proven control measures. It is time right now where everyone has to have a reality check about what we need to be doing,” Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, told the global body’s bi-weekly media briefing.

Van Kerkhove warned that the world was in a “critical point of the pandemic,” which is “growing exponentially.”

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus blamed “confusion, complacency and inconsistency in public health measures” for the increases, pointing to “several countries in Asia and the Middle East that have seen large increases in cases.”

India, Turkey, Iran, the Philippines and Iraq are driving these regional increases.  

“Make no mistake, vaccines are a vital and powerful tool, but they are not the only tool,” stressed Tedros. “We say this day after day, week after week, and we will keep saying it: physical distancing works, masks work, and hygiene works. Ventilation works, surveillance testing, contact tracing, isolation, supportive quarantine and compassionate care all work to stop infections and save lives.”

Tedros pointed to the fact  that in some countries with high transmission rates “restaurants and nightclubs are full, markets are open and crowded with few people taking precautions.”

He also warned young people not to assume that they could not get seriously ill, pointing to the deaths of young, healthy people and the effects of ‘long COVID.’

“Many people who have suffered even mild disease report long term symptoms, including fatigue, weakness, brain fog, dizziness, tremors, insomnia, depression, anxiety, joint pain, chest tightness and more, which are symptoms of long COVID,” warned Tedros.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.

“This is exactly the time where we need to double down on the non-pharmaceutical interventions, on masking and reducing transmission, because we give the vaccines their best chance of providing protection,” said Kate O’Brien, WHO’s Director of Vaccines. “When, in addition to scaling up immunity through vaccination, we reduce transmission, this reduces the likelihood of having [the] emergence of variants.”

Van Kerkhove urged people to “check their social media feeds” to see “what people are doing and how you are mixing” to keep safe.

Vaccine Supply is ‘Precarious’

Bruce Aylward, WHO’s lead at COVAX, admitted that the “whole vaccine supply situation remains precarious,” and the challenge of managing community was “very difficult one to manage.”

India continued to make “tremendous demand” on the supply of AstraZeneca vaccines being produced by the Serum Institute of India.

This vaccine is the backbone of COVAX and requires two doses but the interval between doses could be extended to 12 weeks, said Aylward. 

“Obviously we’d like to make sure that that interval doesn’t go longer than that so we’re doing everything possible to ensure the supply of AstraZeneca’s product in particular because that’s what’s gone out,” said Aylward. 

Vaccine Manufacturing Task Force

The WHO’s Chief Scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, clarified that the Vaccine Manufacturing Task Force being set up under COVAX was focused on the “immediate removal of any obstacles” to vaccine rollout.

At present, it was focused on “raw materials and ingredients and the tubings and the plastic, which is getting into short supply,” she said.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist.

“There are also export restrictions that have been put in place by some countries on some of these products, which is creating a problem for some manufacturers,” added Swaminathan. 

“The first step is really to identify what those critical needs are, where there is a global supply shortage and try to address them, but also work with governments to make sure that there are no export restrictions. That’s where the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the trade rules would come in.”

Earlier in the day, the WTO’s new Director General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, told an African manufacturing conference that the trade body planned to introduce rules to prevent hoarding during pandemics.

Image Credits: Mohsen Atayi, WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.