Last week, more than 15 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported to WHO from around the world – by far the most cases reported in a single week – and we know this is an underestimate.
This huge spike in infections is being driven by the Omicron variant, which is rapidly replacing Delta in almost all countries.
However, the number of weekly reported deaths has remained stable since October last year, at an average of 48 thousand deaths a week.
While the number of patients being hospitalized is increasing in most countries, it is not at the level seen in previous waves.
This is possibly due to the reduced severity of Omicron, as well as widespread immunity from vaccination or previous infection.But let’s be clear: while Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated.
Almost 50 thousand deaths a week is 50 thousand deaths too many.
Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths.
We must not allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated.
In Africa, more than 85% of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine.
We cannot end the acute phase of the pandemic unless we close this gap.
We are making progress. In December, COVAX shipped more than double the number of doses it shipped in November, and in the coming days, we expect COVAX to ship its 1 billionth vaccine dose.
Some of the supply constraints we faced last year are now starting to ease, but we still have a long way to go to reach our target of vaccinating 70% of the population of every country by the middle of this year.
90 countries have still not reached the 40% target, and 36 of those countries have vaccinated less than 10% of their populations.
WHO and our partners are actively supporting these countries to overcome the bottlenecks they face, in leadership and coordination, lack of supply visibility, short shelf-life of donated vaccines, limited cold chain capacity, vaccine confidence, health worker shortages, and competing priorities.
WHO is also paying careful attention to the impact of Omicron on vaccines.
In September last year, WHO established the Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition, or TAG-CO-VAC, a group of experts to review the implications of variants of concern on the composition of vaccines.
Yesterday, TAG-CO-VAC emphasized the urgent need for broader access to the vaccines we have, and that further vaccines are needed that have a greater impact on preventing infection and transmission.
Until such vaccines are developed, the composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated, to ensure they continue to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease.
TAG-CO-VAC also said that a vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be sustainable.
The group also emphasised that while some countries recommend boosters, the immediate priority for the world is accelerating access to primary vaccination, particularly for groups at greater risk of developing severe disease.
The overwhelming majority of people admitted to hospitals around the world are unvaccinated.
While vaccines remain very effective at preventing severe disease and death, they do not fully prevent transmission.
More transmission means more hospitalizations, more deaths, more people off work, including teachers and health workers, and more risk of another variant emerging that is even more transmissible and more deadly than Omicron.
The sheer number of cases also means more pressure on already overburdened and exhausted health workers.
Protecting those most at risk also helps to protect health systems and health workers, which are once again under increased strain because of the burden of Omicron.
A study published last year showed that more than 1 in 4 health workers globally have experienced mental health issues during the pandemic.
And data from several countries show that many health workers have considered leaving or have left their jobs because of poor working conditions, insufficient staffing, and the distress of making life and death decisions every day under intense pressure.
Health workers have done their best to protect us for two years; we must all do our part to protect them, by getting vaccinated, and by taking precautions to prevent becoming infected or infecting someone else.
And we must remember that COVID-19 is only one challenge that health workers face every day.
Taking the pressure off health systems will enable them to deal with the many other challenges they face, including providing care for pregnant women.
Yesterday, WHO hosted a global webinar, attended by clinicians from around the world, on the clinical management of COVID-19 during pregnancy, childbirth and the early postnatal period.
Pregnant women are not at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but if they are infected, they are at higher risk for severe disease.
That’s why it’s vital that pregnant women in all countries have access to vaccines to protect their own lives, and those of their babies.
We also call for pregnant women to be included in clinical trials for new treatments and vaccines.
Fortunately, mother to baby transmission in utero or during birth is very rare, and no active virus has been identified in breast milk.
We’re also concerned by reports from some countries about women who have been separated from their newborn babies, which is unnecessary and can be harmful to the health and well-being of newborns during the critical first days after birth.
All women have the right to a safe and positive pregnancy and childbirth experience and need high quality, respectful maternity care.
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