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Omicron Variant threat: WHO worried for health systems over Covid cases 'tsunami'

The WHO said the Delta and Omicron variants of concern were "twin threats" that were driving new case numbers to record highs, leading to spikes in hospitalisations and deaths.

December 29, 2021 / 10:09 PM IST
WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (File image: AP)

WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (File image: AP)

A "tsunami" of Omicron and Delta Covid-19 cases will pile pressure on health systems already being stretched to their limits, the World Health Organization warned on Wednesday.

The WHO said the Delta and Omicron variants of concern were "twin threats" that were driving new case numbers to record highs, leading to spikes in hospitalisations and deaths.

The WHO said new global cases had risen by 11 percent last week, while the United States and France both registered record daily case numbers on Wednesday.

ALSO READ: Omicron risk remains 'very high': WHO

"I am highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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"This is and will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers, and health systems on the brink of collapse."

He said the pressure on health systems was not only due to new coronavirus patients, but also large numbers of health workers falling ill with Covid.

'Moral shame':

The WHO reflected on the fight against Covid-19 in 2021 and hoped that next year would see an end to the acute stage of the pandemic -- but warned that it would rest on greater vaccine equity.

The WHO wanted 40 percent of the population in every country fully vaccinated by the end of the year and has a target of 70 percent coverage by the middle of 2022.

Tedros announced that 92 of the WHO's 194 member states were going to miss the 40 percent target.

"This is due to a combination of limited supply going to low-income countries for most of the year and then subsequent vaccines arriving close to expiry and without key parts like the syringes," he said.

"It's not only a moral shame, it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate. In the year ahead, I call for leaders of government and industry to walk the talk on vaccine equity.

"While 2021 has been hard, I ask everyone to make a New Year's resolution to get behind the campaign to vaccinate 70 percent by the middle of 2022."

Misinformation and populism:

Tedros slammed the attitude of richer countries accusing them of hogging the weapons to combat Covid-19 -- and leaving the back door open for the virus.

"Populism, narrow nationalism and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, by a small number of countries, undermined equity, and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants," he said.

Meanwhile disinformation had been a constant distraction in 2021, hampering efforts to beat the pandemic.

"In the huge waves of cases currently seen in Europe and in many countries around the world, misinformation which has driven vaccine hesitancy is now translating to the unvaccinated disproportionally dying," he said.

Tedros lamented that while there were 1.8 million recorded deaths in 2020, there were 3.5 million in 2021 -- and the true number would be much higher.
AFP
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