Low vaccination creating new Covid variants, warns WHO

Published December 2, 2021
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) speaks during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland. — Reuters/File
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) speaks during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland. — Reuters/File

GENEVA: The World Health Orga­nisation on Wednesday warned a “toxic mix” of low vaccination coverage and low testing rates was creating fertile breeding ground for new Covid-19 variants.

The WHO said measures to stop the globally-dominant Delta variant would also hinder Omicron, first discovered in November in southern Africa and which has since rattled countries around the world.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Gheb­reyesus called on countries to optimise their public health and social measures to control the spread of Covid-19.

He also said nations needed to ensure that high-risk and vulnerable individuals are fully vaccinated “immediately”.

Tedros sounded a reminder that while global attention turns to Omicron, the world was already grappling with the “highly transmissible, dangerous” Delta variant, which currently “accounts for almost all cases” globally.

“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron,” Tedros told a press conference.

“But if countries and individuals don’t do what they need to do to stop transmission of Delta, they won’t stop Omicron either. “Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing — a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants. “That’s why we continue to urge countries to... ensure equitable access to vaccines, tests and therapeutics all over the world.

EU chief mulls mandatory Covid jabs

Europe’s top official said on Wednesday it was time to “think about mandatory vaccination” as the fast-spreading Omicron variant darkened forecasts and deepened fears of another difficult winter. Ignoring a WHO warning against blanket travel bans, Japan suspended new flight bookings into the country as the OECD warned that Omicron threatens economic recovery and lowered the growth forecast for 2021.

Rising infection rates have already seen European governments reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns in a desperate attempt to limit hospitalisations, but leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.

In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “understandable and appropriate” to discuss how to “encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination” in the bloc — although only individual member states can impose vaccine mandates.

Austria has already said it will make Covid-19 jabs compulsory next February, Germany is mulling following suit and Greece on Tuesday said it will mandate vaccines for over-60s.

While it could take weeks to prove how infectious and resistant to current vaccines Omicron is, many countries have rushed to ramp up existing programmes, seeing them as the best line of defence.

From Wednesday, every adult in Italy became eligible for a Covid booster shot, previously only open to those aged over 40. Non-EU members Britain and Norway had already promised booster shots to all adults before the end of January and Easter respectively.

So far, more than a dozen countries and territories have detected Omicron cases, including Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Israel, Italy, Nigeria and Portugal. Dozens of countries have imposed travel restrictions mostly targeting southern African nations.

Global economic body the OECD warned Omicron threatens the world’s recovery and lowered growth estimates for 2021 from 5.7 percent to 5.6 percent.

The Paris-based organisation said the recovery had “lost momentum and is becoming increasingly imbalanced” and would remain “precarious” until vaccines were deployed worldwide.

Japanese authorities, which had already tightened its tough border measures, on Wednesday said they had detected a second infection of the new strain — this time in a person arriving from Peru. Other governments in Asia also expanded curbs, with Indonesia adding Hong Kong and Malaysia listing Malawi on their travel ban lists.

“A lot of my neighbors and friends died of Covid-19,” said Jakarta resident Jan Pieter Tobing. “Coronavirus is the real deal. So the emergence of Omicron is very terrifying. Honestly, it’s scary.” France bucked the trend by announcing flights from southern Africa could land on its territory from Saturday, but only allowing French and EU residents, diplomats and flight crews to disembark.

Even as governments acted unilaterally in imposing travel restrictions, WHO member states came together in Geneva to work on an international accord on handling the next pandemic.

An intergovernmental negotiating body will be established to reach an agreement on responding to future pandemics with a first meeting due before March 1, 2022.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2021

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