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Global conditions perfect for more Covid variants to emerge, WHO’s Tedros says

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on December 20, 2021 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

Conditions are ripe for Covid-19 to mutate into more new variants, and it is dangerous to assume the pandemic is approaching its endgame, the WHO’s top official warned on Monday.

Addressing the WHO’s executive board, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said since the omicron variant was identified just nine weeks ago, more than 80 million Covid cases had been reported to the WHO — more than were reported in the whole of 2020.

Last week, an average 100 cases were reported to the WHO every three seconds, Tedros added, and someone lost their life to the virus every 12 seconds.

While cases have been surging, Tedros noted that the “explosion” in cases had not been matched by a surge in deaths, although fatalities were rising in all regions, particularly in Africa where countries were struggling to access vaccines.

“It is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant or that we’re in the endgame,” Tedros warned. “On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge. To change the course of the pandemic, we must change the conditions that are driving it.”

He added that the world cannot “gamble on a virus whose evolution we cannot control or predict.”

Last week, another top WHO official warned that even though the spread of omicron cases was slowing in some countries, high infection rates around the world would likely lead to new variants by allowing the virus to mutate.

Covid emergency ‘can end this year’

However, Tedros was optimistic that with the right course of action, the pandemic could reach a turning point in 2022.

Recognizing that people were tired of the pandemic, and that many governments were “walking a tightrope” to try to balance infection control with what is acceptable to their populations, Tedros said there were “no easy answers.”

But he added: “If countries use all of [the WHO’s] strategies and tools in a comprehensive way, we can end the acute phase of the pandemic this year — we can end Covid-19 as a global health emergency, and we can do it this year,” he said.

Those strategies included achieving the WHO’s target of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population, boosting testing capabilities and ensuring equitable access to oxygen and antiviral Covid treatments.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos Agenda event last week, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, also said society had a chance to end the Covid emergency in 2022 if longstanding inequities — such as fair access to vaccines and health care — were addressed.

‘Critical juncture’

Tedros’ address to the WHO’s executive board on Monday came after he held a press conference during a meeting with Svenja Schulze, Germany’s minister for economic cooperation and development.

During the conference, Tedros praised Germany — the biggest donor to the WHO — for approaching global public health with “solidarity and multilateralism.”

“These qualities are more important than ever, because the Covid-19 pandemic is now entering its third year and we are at a critical juncture,” Tedros told reporters.

“We have the tools to end the acute phase of this pandemic. But we must use them equitably and wisely.”

Noting Germany’s commitment to international cooperation and tackling the pandemic under its newly adopted G-7 presidency, Tedros praised the country’s efforts as “an example for all” but warned that “we still have a long road ahead.”

Globally, more than 71 million new cases of Covid were recorded over the past four weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. While the U.S. and France recorded the highest number of cases during that period, with 18.3 million and 7.6 million respectively, Yemen and Vanuatu have suffered the highest case fatality rates in the world throughout the crisis, JHU data shows.

In Yemen, where a civil war is raging and less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated, almost one in five people who have contracted Covid-19 died, according to JHU. Meanwhile, in Vanuatu — where cases have remained low throughout the pandemic but just a third of the population is immunized against the virus — the case fatality rate is 14%.

But according to Tedros, vaccinations are not the only thing world leaders need to consider when looking at ways to help lower income countries protect their populations from the effects of the virus.

“Vaccines alone will not end the pandemic,” Tedros said. “Many countries need diagnostics, life-saving therapeutics — including oxygen and support for vaccine rollout.”

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