Story at a glance
- The director-general of the World Health Organization spoke to the group’s board of directors on Monday.
- He emphasized that the pandemic is far from over, and that omicron may not be the last variant of concern.
- Accelerated testing, variant sequencing and equitable access to antiviral medication is critically important in order to bring the pandemic to an end, Ghebreyesus said.
As the world enters year three of a global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top official is warning that current conditions are ideal for yet another variant to emerge, and it’s dangerous to assume the pandemic has entered its endgame.
Speaking to WHO’s executive board on Monday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it’s been two years since the organization officially declared a public health emergency of international concern over the spread of COVID-19 — and since then there have been nearly 350 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 5.5 million deaths.
Since the omicron variant was identified just nine weeks ago, Ghebreyesus said that variant alone has caused more than 80 million cases, higher than the total number of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO in 2020.
Ghebreyesus emphasized it’s critically important for countries around the world to not let their guard down now.
“There are different scenarios for how the pandemic could play out, and how the acute phase could end – but it is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame.”
Ghebreyesus acknowledged that people around the world are tired — from lockdowns and restrictions to hurting economies and governments attempting to walk a “tightrope” — and tried to strike a balance between what they know is effective with what people will accept.
“But learning to live with COVID cannot mean that we give this virus a free ride. It cannot mean that we accept almost 50 thousand deaths a week, from a preventable and treatable disease,” said Ghebreyesus.
Right at the start of the new year, the U.S. hit a milestone of new COVID-19 cases, with John Hopkins recording 1 million new infections the first week of January. On Jan. 20, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported 1 million child COVID-19 cases
Vaccination rates must increase, Ghebreyesus said, to hit WHO’s 70 percent target. However, most countries have not achieved that milestone yet, with data from John Hopkins indicating large and small nations are lagging behind.
In India, only 50 percent of its population are fully vaccinated, while in South Africa, out of its 59 million population almost, only 28 percent are fully vaccinated. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 63 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, while about 75 percent have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Notably, Ghebreyesus also said vaccines alone are not the golden ticket out of the pandemic, as nations should also be offering equitable access to diagnostics, oxygen and antiviral medication.
They should also be accelerating testing capabilities and sequencing rates, so variants can be tracked closely and monitored for any new emerging variants, he added.
“And it means learning critical lessons and defining new solutions now, not waiting until the pandemic is over,” said Ghebreyesus.
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