While reported COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decline, Omicron sub-variants are driving an increase in the Americas and Africa, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday, noting the disparity between profits being made, and treatments available in the developing world.
Despite weekly fatalities being at their lowest since March 2020, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists at the weekly briefing in Geneva that “these trends, while welcome, don’t tell the full story.”
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 there.
While it is too soon to know whether the sub-variants can cause more severe disease than others linked to Omicron, early data suggest that 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,” warned Tedros.
He reiterated that the best way to save lives, protect health systems and minimize 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.
Although more jabs have become available, a lack of political commitment, operational capacity problems, financial constraints, misinformation and disinformation, are limiting vaccine demand.
“We urge all countries to address these bottlenecks to provide protection to their populations,” the top WHO official said.
“Testing and sequencing remain absolutely critical,” he continued, noting that both sub-variants were identified because “South Africa is still doing the vital genetic sequencing that many other countries have stopped”.
Tedros cautioned that many countries are blind to how the virus is mutating – not knowing what lies ahead.
And the 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,” underscored the WHO chief.
Playing with fire
While “we’re playing with a fire that continues to burn us”, he said that “manufacturers are posting record profits”.
WHO supports fair reward for innovation and while ACT Accelerator partners are negotiating lower costs and increased availability, he stressed that “we cannot accept prices that make life-saving treatments available to the rich and out of reach for the poor”.
“This is a moral failing”.
Tedros informed the journalists 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,” said, noting that WHO had now verified 186 attacks on healthcare in the country.
He 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, Tedros spelled out that the climate crisis, spiking food prices and food shortages are threatening to cause famine and further insecurity.
With the vast region experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, 15 million people are estimated to be severely food insecure in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and 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,” said Tedros, reminding that “all of this work costs money”.
Hand washing, not hand wringing
“The simple act of cleaning hands can save lives, especially in healthcare facilities, where vulnerable patients can be exposed to infection.”
He said an astonishing 70 per cent of infections can be prevented where good hand hygiene and other “cost-effective practices are followed”.
He said simply cleaning your hands regularly, “can be the difference between life and death, for you and for others.”