By Cecilia Ologunagba
COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decline but omicron sub-variants are driving an increase in the Americas and Africa.
Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, told journalists at the weekly briefing in Geneva on Wednesday that despite weekly fatalities being at their lowest since March 2020, they don’t tell the full story.
He said “The South African scientists who identified Omicron late last year have now reported two more Omicron sub-variants, BA.4 and BA.5, as the reason for a spike in cases in South Africa.
“It’s too soon to know whether these new sub-variants can cause more severe disease than other Omicron sub-variants, but early data suggest vaccination remains protective against severe the disease and death.
“The best way to protect people remains vaccination, alongside tried and tested public health and social measures.
“This is another sign that the pandemic is not done with us, and there are some clear takeaways,’’ he said.
The WHO chief reiterated that the best way to save lives, protect health systems and minimise cases of “long COVID” is by vaccinating at least 70 per cent of every country’s population – and 100 per cent of most at-risk groups.
He said although more jabs had become available, a lack of political commitment, operational capacity problems, financial constraints, misinformation, and disinformation, had been limiting vaccine demand.
“We urge all countries to address these bottlenecks to provide protection to their populations,” the top WHO official said.
According to him, testing and sequencing remain critical, noting that both sub-variants were identified because South Africa is still doing the vital genetic sequencing that many other countries have stopped.
Ghebreyesus cautioned that many countries were blind to how the virus is mutating – not knowing what lies ahead.
“Scant availability and high prices of effective antivirals continue to render them inaccessible to low- and middle-income countries.
“Coupled with low investment in early diagnosis, it is simply not acceptable that in the worst pandemic in a century, innovative treatments that can save lives are not reaching those that need them,” he said.
WHO supports fair reward for innovation and while ACT Accelerator partners are negotiating lower costs and increased availability, “we cannot accept prices that make life-saving treatments available to the rich and out of reach for the poor.”
He informed the journalists that he would be traveling to Poland on Thursday, for the International Donors’ Conference for Ukraine.
“The health challenges in Ukraine are worsening by the day, especially in the country’s east,” the official said, noting that WHO has now verified 186 attacks on healthcare in the country.
The WHO chief highlighted the importance of humanitarian corridors by pointing out that WHO and its partners were able to receive and provide healthcare to scores of civilians fleeing Mariupol.
He urged Russia to allow all remaining civilians to leave the shattered port city, and all other areas where they are “at great risk”.
Turning to the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, Ghebreyesus spelled out that the climate crisis, spiking food prices and food shortages are threatening to cause famine and further insecurity.
According to him, 15 million people are estimated to be severely food insecure in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, noting that the region is experiencing its worst droughts in 40 years.
He said repeated attacks on scarce water resources in Burkina Faso are depriving citizens of access to the minimum amount of water they need just to survive.
Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, WHO is supporting vaccinations for an Ebola outbreak.
“WHO is responding to a huge range of challenges around the world – to say nothing of our work outside of emergencies to strengthen health systems and promote the conditions in which people can live healthy lives,” he said. (NAN)