A wave of coronavirus driven by the highly infectious wave of Omicron variants may peak in parts of North America and Europe, but new cases continue to climb in less vaccinated regions, and leaders from the World Health Organization warn that the global push and wide vaccine gap around the world could pave the way for another dangerous variant.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s Covid-19 technical lead, said in a livestream on Tuesday that challenges existed in every country to reach the most vulnerable unvaccinated communities.
“The fact remains that more than three billion people have yet to receive their first dose, so we have a long way to go,” said Dr Van Kerkhove, noting that around 21 million cases have been reported in the agency last week. “There are still many countries in the middle of this Omicron wave.”
New daily cases remain at record highs around the world, averaging around 3.3 million – an increase of more than 25% over two weeks and a staggering increase from a rate of around 600,000 per day early December, according to a New York Times database that uses data from Johns Hopkins University. Cases continued to rise in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.
And Omicron continues to spread in Eastern and Central Europe, where vaccination rates are lagging.
Although vaccine shortages are easing, only around 62% of the world’s population has received at least one vaccine, and a stark divide between rich and poor parts of the world remains. In low-income countries, only 10% of the population has received at least one dose. In high- and upper-middle-income countries, 78% received at least one dose.
The potential consequences of vaccine shortages were highlighted by Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa. Low vaccination coverage creates the conditions for widespread circulation of the virus and with it the possibility of new variants emerging.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, said on Monday that the emergency phase of the pandemic was still very much present.
“It’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant or that we’re at the endgame,” Dr. Tedros told a meeting of the organization’s board of directors. “On the contrary, overall, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
Dr Hans Kluge, director of the agency’s European region, said in A declaration Monday that it was too early for nations to let their guard down, with so many unvaccinated people around the world. But, he said, with more vaccination and natural immunity from infection, “Omicron offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization.”
During Tuesday’s live stream, WHO officials again stressed that the virus will continue to circulate and that Omicron will not be the last variant. The next one would have to be even more contagious to overtake Omicron, said Dr Van Kerkhove, adding that the “big question” was whether it would be more serious.
The agency said that without more equitable distribution and administration of vaccines, the pandemic would drag on.
Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of its health emergencies programme, said the biggest failure of the global response to the pandemic has been “our failure to get these lifesaving tools to the people who will benefit most”.
“We can have all the technology and innovation,” he said, “but if we don’t have the mechanisms to share the fruits of that innovation, then we fail.”