GENEVA: The World Health Organization yesterday 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 optimize 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.”
The WHO said that those not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 who are also vulnerable to the disease, including over-60s, should put off travel to areas with community transmission. The World Health Organization also said blanket travel bans would not stop the spread of the Omicron variant. The new COVID-19 variant of concern, which the WHO says poses a “very high” risk globally, has prompted many countries to shut their borders.
“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO said in a travel advice statement on Omicron. “In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”
First reported to the WHO less than a week ago after being detected in southern Africa earlier this month, Omicron has already appeared in several countries. The WHO noted the increasing number of governments introducing travel measures, including temporarily banning arrivals from countries where the variant has been found. The WHO said that as of Sunday, 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying the importation of the new variant.
“It is expected that the Omicron variant will be detected in an increasing number of countries as national authorities step up their surveillance and sequencing activities,” it said. The WHO later issued a correction to the final part of that travel advice, relating who should be advised to postpone travel, and to where.
“Persons who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission,” the WHO’s corrected line said.
Elsewhere, the WHO advised countries to apply an “evidence-informed and risk-based approach” when implementing travel measures. The UN health agency said national authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival could apply mitigation measures that might delay or reduce the exportation and importation of the variant. They could include screening passengers, testing and quarantine.
“All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travelers’ dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The WHO said that “essential international travel”, including for humanitarian missions, repatriations and transport of vital supplies, should always be prioritized during the pandemic. Earlier Tuesday, WHO chief told member states to keep calm and take “rational” steps in response to Omicron. “We call on all member states to take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures,” he said. “The global response must be calm, coordinated and coherent.”
Tedros stressed that it remains unclear how dangerous the variant is. “We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” he said. The WHO chief said it was understandable that countries wanted to protect their citizens “against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand”. “But I am equally concerned that several member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities.” – AFP