The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday urged leaders to push back against daunting new COVID surges through increased vaccination efforts and public health measures, warning that with Delta quickly becoming the dominant strain in many countries ‘we are in a very dangerous period of the pandemic’.
"In those countries with low COVID-19 vaccination coverage, terrible scenes of hospitals overflowing are again becoming the norm. But no country is out of the woods yet”, said Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, during his biweekly press conference.
Tedros explained that the Delta variant is ‘dangerous’ and continues to evolve and mutate, and this requires constant evaluation and ‘careful adjustment of the public health response’.
“Delta has been detected in at least 98 countries and is spreading quickly in countries with low and high vaccination coverage”, he warned.
During journalists’ questions, WHO’s technical leader for COVID-19 response, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, reminded that the virus has been evolving since it first emerged.
“It is what viruses do. The variants of concern that we are tracking are currently four: Alpha, Beta, Gama and Delta. They will continue to evolve: there will be more mutations, there will be more variants detected, and some of those will be variants of concern”, she predicted.
Dr. Van Kerkhove said there were ‘sub lineages’ of the Delta variant that experts are currently tracking and urged countries to expand their genomic sequencing efforts.
Meanwhile, the WHO chief explained that there are ‘essentially’ two ways for countries to push back against the new COVID-19 surges.
"Public health and social measures like strong surveillance, strategic testing, early case detection, isolation and clinical care remain critical. As well as masking, physical distance, avoiding crowded places and keeping indoor areas well ventilated", he said.
The second way, said Tedros, was through the global sharing of protective gear, oxygen, tests, treatments and vaccines.
"I have urged leaders across the world to work together to ensure that by this time next year, 70% of all people in every country are vaccinated”, Tedros highlighted, adding that this was the best way to slow the pandemic, save lives, drive a truly global economic recovery and prevent further dangerous variants from getting the ‘upper hand’.
Countries must step up
WHO is calling on leaders to vaccinate at least 10% of people as soon as possible, in all countries, to ensure that health workers and those most at risk are protected.
According to Tedros, ensuring this would effectively end the acute stage of the pandemic and save a significant number of lives.
"It’s a challenge but we know it’s possible because already three billion vaccines have been distributed. It is within the collective power of a few countries to step up and ensure that vaccines are shared, manufacturing is increased, and that the funds are in places to purchase the tools needed”, he urged.
Although there is some vaccine-sharing happening now, it is still ‘only a trickle’, and being outpaced by variants.
“In those countries whose hospitals are filling up, they need vaccines and other health tools right now", he underscored.
Companies must also accelerate efforts
The UN health agency is also urging BioTech, Pfizer and Moderna to share knowledge and technology so that it is possible to accelerate the development of new mRNA vaccine manufacturing hubs.
"The sooner we start building more vaccine hubs and upping global vaccine capacity, the sooner we can diminish deadly surges”, Dr. Tedros said.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's Chief Scientist, said a lot of data had been gathered on the efficacy of Pfizer-Biotech and AstraZeneca shots, but much less for other vaccines in use.
From its regional offices, WHO is currently promoting the idea of vaccine effectiveness studies and working with countries to obtain data so that they can reassure the public that vaccines will keep being effective against future variants.
“Now, the good news is that all of the WHO emergency use listed vaccines do protect against developing severe disease, hospitalization and death due to the Delta variant”, she explained recently during a WHO video interview.
Dr. Swaminathan reminded that a full course of vaccination is essential to provide full immunity against the Delta variant.
“None of the vaccines that we have currently are 100% protective. So this is why even if you're vaccinated, you can get the infection, but the chances are you will get very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and that the chances of getting seriously ill are really, really low”, she explained.