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COVID variants ‘winning the race against vaccines’

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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.

Variants thriving

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.

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Health & Wellness

Stockholm+50: Accelerate action towards a healthy and prosperous planet for all

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The United Nations General Assembly agreed on the way forward for plans to host an international meeting at the highest possible level in Stockholm next June, during the week of World Environment Day. The event will commemorate the 50 years since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and serve as a contribution to accelerate action towards a more sustainable society.

The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was made in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden, resulting in what is often seen as the the first step toward the development of international environmental law, recognizing the importance of a healthy environment for people, and creating the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Five decades after the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the Government of Sweden, with support from the Government of Kenya, will host Stockholm+50, an international meeting in 2022 to commemorate the 50 years since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and its outcome documents, as a contribution to the environmental dimension of sustainable development to accelerate the implementation of commitments in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development, including a sustainable recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The international meeting, “Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity”, will take place in Stockholm on 2 and 3 June 2022, following a UN General Assembly resolution. In three leadership dialogues, the meeting will reflect on the urgent need for actions towards a healthy planet and prosperity of all, achieving a sustainable and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and accelerating the implementation of the environmental dimension of Sustainable Development in the context of the Decade of Action. The meeting will also reinforce the messages and the outcomes of the event to commemorate UNEP’s 50th anniversary (UNEP@50), which will have taken place in March 2022, in Nairobi.

Per Bolund, Sweden’s Minister for the Environment and Climate, and Deputy Prime Minister, said “Our aim is clear, we want Stockholm+50 to make a concrete contribution to accelerating the transformation to a sustainable future. We call this meeting to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1972 conference. We are running out of time and urgent action is needed. These challenges are global, and we must meet them with a global response that drives action on the ground.”

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, who was on 11 October appointed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as the Secretary-General of the Stockholm+50 international meeting, said: “We need to urgently work to transform our economies and societies, but our branches will spread only as far as our roots are deep. By remembering Stockholm at 50, we also remember how the world came together to heal the ozone layer in 2013, phase out leaded fuel this year and stop endangered species from going extinct. By convening in Stockholm, we also recommit to human and planetary health, responsibility, prosperity, equality and peace – as we have seen only too clearly in COVID-19.”

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COVID-19 deaths at lowest level in nearly a year

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A thermometer gun is used to take a boy's temperature in Sri Lanka. © UNICEF/Chameera Laknath

Although COVID-19 deaths continue to decline, vaccine inequity persists, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday, again calling for greater support for developing countries.

Agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reported that the death toll from the disease is now at its lowest level in almost a year. 

“But it’s still an unacceptably high level – almost 50,000 deaths a week, and the real number is certainly higher,” he said, speaking during the regular WHO briefing from Geneva. 

“Deaths are declining in every region except Europe, where several countries are facing fresh waves of cases and deaths.  And of course, deaths are highest in the countries and populations with the least access to vaccines.” 

Tedros appealed for global cooperation. “Countries that continue to roll out boosters now are effectively preventing other countries from vaccinating their most at-risk populations,” he said. 

Missing the mark 

As of Wednesday, there were more than 238 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, and more than 4.8 million deaths. 

WHO had previously pushed governments to vaccinate 10 per cent of their populations by the end of September, a target which 56 nations missed, most of them in Africa. 

Tedros said even more countries are at risk of missing the 40 per cent target to be achieved by the end of the year.  Three countries – Burundi, Eritrea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – have yet to start vaccinations. 

 “About half of the remaining countries are constrained by supply. They have a vaccination programme underway, but don’t have enough supply to accelerate enough to reach the target,” he said. 

Tedros urged countries and companies that control global vaccine supply to prioritize distribution to the COVAX solidarity initiative and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT). 

Meanwhile, WHO and partners are working with other countries, such as those affected by fragility or conflict, to strengthen technical and logistical capacity for vaccine rollout. 

“With aggressive and ambitious action, most of these countries can still reach the 40% target by the end of this year, or be on a clear pathway to reaching it.” 

Crisis in Tigray 

Tedros also addressed the escalating crisis in northern Ethiopia, where a nearly year-long war in the Tigray region has left up to seven million people in urgent need for food and other assistance. 

The conflict has spilled over into neighbouring Afar and Amhara, further increasing needs and complicating response efforts. Aid is not reaching the area “at anywhere close to the levels needed”, he said, and communications, electricity, other basis services remain cut off. 

WHO and partners are calling for unfettered access to the affected regions, as the lives of millions of people are at stake, Tedros told journalists. 

“People with chronic illnesses are dying due to lack of both food and medicine. Nearly 200,000 children have gone without critical vaccinations,” he said   

“When people do not have enough food, they are more susceptible to deadly diseases, as well as the threat of starvation, and that’s what we’re now seeing in Tigray.”

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Global health community prescribes climate action for COVID recovery

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Street scene in India. © UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

Ambitious national climate commitments are crucial for States to sustain a healthy, green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new UN health agency report launched on Monday in the lead-up to the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Based on a growing body of research confirming numerous and inseparable links between climate and health, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health spells out that transformational action in every sector, from energy, transport and nature to food systems and finance is needed to protect people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment”, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people”.

An urgent call

WHO’s report was launched at the same time as an open letter, signed by over two thirds of the global health workforce – 300 organizations representing at least 45 million doctors and health professionals worldwide – calling for national leaders and COP26 country delegations to step up climate action. 

“Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change”, the letter from the health professionals reads.

“We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at COP26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions”.

Fossil fuels ‘killing us’

Both the report and open letter come as unprecedented extreme weather events and other climate impacts are taking a rising toll on everyone.

Heatwaves, storms and floods have taken thousands of lives and disrupted millions of others while also threatening healthcare systems and facilities when they are needed most, according to WHO.

Changes in weather and climate are threatening food security and driving up food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, while climate impacts are also negatively affecting mental health.  

“The burning of fossil fuels is killing us. Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity”, states the WHO report. And while no one is safe from the health impacts of climate change, “they are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged”.

Climate actions far outweigh costs

Meanwhile, air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide, according to WHO. 

The report states clearly that the public health benefits from implementing ambitious climate actions far outweigh the costs. 

“It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face”, said Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.

“Bringing down air pollution…would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80 per cent while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change”, she pointed out.

Dr. Neira added that a shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets “could reduce global emissions significantly, ensure more resilient food systems, and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050”.  

Call to action

Although achieving the Paris Agreement on climate change would improve air quality, diet and physical activity – saving millions of lives a year – most climate decision-making processes currently do not account for these health co-benefits and their economic valuation.  

Tedros underscored WHO’s call for all countries to “commit to decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests”, and highlighted 10 priorities in the report to safeguard “the health of people and the planet that sustains us.”

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