Variants like Delta are “currently winning the race against vaccines” said the World Health Organization (WHO) chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday, pinning the blame squarely on a lack of equitable vaccine production and distribution.
During his biweekly conference in Geneva, he added that passing the four millionth recorded death worldwide from COVID-19 was a “tragic milestone” which “likely underestimates the overall toll” of the deadly virus.
Tedros warned that far too many countries are seeing “sharp spikes in cases and hospitalization”, while rich nations with high inoculation rates, were dropping public health measures “as though the pandemic is already over.”
A wave of death
The situation is leading to an acute shortage of oxygen and treatments, and driving a ‘wave of death’ in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“At this stage in the pandemic, the fact that millions of health and care workers have still not been vaccinated is abhorrent”, he added.
Tedros reminded that ‘vaccine nationalism’, where a handful of nations have taken the lion’s share, is ‘morally indefensible’ and an ineffective public health strategy against a respiratory virus that is mutating quickly and becoming increasingly successful at infecting new hosts.
“Variants are currently winning the race against vaccines because of inequitable vaccine production and distribution…It didn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be this way going forward”, he underscored.
He said the spread of variants would also threaten the global economic recovery, noting that from a “moral, epidemiological or economic” standpoint, now is the time for the world to come together.
Tedros called on leaders of the G20 economies, set to meet later this week, to take urgent steps to end the acute stage of the pandemic, providing the necessary funding to scale up equitable manufacturing and distribution of health tools.
No ‘flat curve’ yet
The Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, Dr. Mike Ryan, told journalists that while it has been good to see a drop in hospitalizations in countries with high levels of vaccination, this still should be “a moment for extreme caution for countries right now”.
“[Almost] all the regions had an increase in cases in the last week…this is not a flat curve; this is an increasing curve. Making assumptions that transmission is not going to increase because of vaccines is a false assumption.
“Transmission will increase when you open up because we don’t have vaccines (for all) and we are still not sure to what extent vaccination protects against the ability to be infected or have onward transmission”, he explained.
Dr. Ryan added that with increased transmission in the community, the most vulnerable- the older and people with underlying conditions- will be at risk, especially in countries where vaccination programmes have not reach them yet.
There are more two dozen countries that have epidemic curves which are “almost vertical right now…This is not the situation we should be in, when we have tools right now”, WHO COVID technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove also warned.
The epidemiologist said the Delta variant has been now detected in 104 countries; the Alpha variant in 173; the Beta in 122; and the Gamma variant in 74.
“Some countries have all four of these variants of concern circulating. The Delta variant has even more increased transmissibility than the Alpha variant. If that virus takes hold, it will spread”, she cautioned.
She reminded that the virus continues to mutate and change, including the Delta variant, but said that “we can still have the upper hand”.
“Let’s use the tools that we already have to keep transmission down. Be safe, be smart…the virus has a hold over us right now and we need to regain control”, she underscored.
The latest numbers
Last week, the number of new COVID cases increased slightly, while the number of new deaths continued to decrease, with over 2.6 million new cases and just under 54,000 new deaths reported globally. This is the lowest weekly mortality figure since early October 2020, according to the weekly WHO epidemiological update.
The cumulative number of cases reported globally now exceeds 183 million.
Last week, all regions reported an increase in new cases except for the Americas. The European Region reported a sharp increase in incidence (30%) whereas African region reported a sharp increase in mortality (23%) when compared to the previous week. All Regions, except for the Americas and South-East Asia, reported an increase in the number of deaths.