Covid-19 Delta variant, first detected in India, threatens to rapidly spread in Asia Pacific region: UNHCR

Published June 2, 2021
An Indian health worker in a protective suit takes the swab of a village woman to test for Covid-19 in Burha Mayong village, Morigaon district of Assam, India on May 22. — AP/File
An Indian health worker in a protective suit takes the swab of a village woman to test for Covid-19 in Burha Mayong village, Morigaon district of Assam, India on May 22. — AP/File

The highly infectious Covid-19 variant first detected in India threatens to rapidly spread in the Asia Pacific region, including areas inhabited by refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said, as it warns of vaccine shortages in the region.

UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic, at a press briefing in Geneva, said fragile health systems in many countries in the Asia Pacific region have struggled to cope with the recent surge of coronavirus cases, The Hindu reported.

"We are particularly worried about the situation in the Asia Pacific region, which in the past two months has experienced the largest increase in the number of cases globally," he said.

Over this period, some 38 million cases have been recorded and more than half a million deaths have been reported, the UNHCR spokesperson said. The lack of hospital beds and oxygen, limited Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacities and scarce health facilities and services have worsened outcomes for those infected with Covid-19, particularly in India and Nepal.

Variants

The highly infectious variant of the virus, which first emerged in India, threatens to rapidly spread in the sub-region, including those inhabited by refugee populations, Mahecic said.

The B.1.617 Covid-19 variant is classified into three lineages — B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3.

The B.1.617.2 strain has been renamed Delta by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has said that only B.1.617.2 is now a variant of concern and that lower rates of transmission have been observed for the other two lineages.

The B.1.617.2 is has been reported in 62 countries as of June 1.

Vaccine shortage

With Covid-19 raging in many parts of the world, the UNHCR has warned of shortages of vaccines in the Asia Pacific region.

In this regard, UNHCR spokesperson Mahecic said, "We urge an immediate and stronger support for the Covax initiative, a worldwide effort aimed at achieving equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines." This is crucial for saving lives and curbing the impact of the virus, particularly in developing nations as these countries host the vast majority of more than 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world, he added.

"Yet so far, they have benefited from only a fraction of the world's Covid-19 vaccines."

The UNHCR has stressed that no one can be left behind in the global effort against the coronavirus.

The pandemic will be defeated only when vaccinations become available everywhere on an equitable basis, the agency has said, warning that current delays in vaccine shipments, brought about by limited supplies to Covax, mean that some of the world's most vulnerable people remain susceptible to the virus.

"The UNHCR is adding its voice to the calls for countries with surplus doses to donate to Covax, and for manufacturers to boost supplies to the Covax facility," Mahecic said.

Refugees

The UN refugee agency has said that refugees, in particular, remain vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19 as overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus.

According to the UNHCR, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees are living in the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world, the number of cases has increased considerably during the last two months. As of May 31, over 1,188 cases have been reported among the refugees, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.

There is also a worrying increase in the number of Covid-19 cases among refugees and asylum-seekers in Nepal, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Some refugees, including those in Nepal, have already received their first vaccine dose via Covax-provided supplies, while not a single vaccine has been administered to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh yet, given the scarcity of supplies in the country, according to the UNHCR.

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