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COVID-19 pandemic ‘is far from over,’ says WHO Chief

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SWITZERLAND, JAPAN, US, AUSTRALIA, BRAZIL: The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organisation chief said yesterday, cautioning against a narrative that the fast-spreading Omicron variant is risk-free.

“This pandemic is nowhere near over,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.

Tedros warned against dismissing as mild the coronavirus variant Omicron, which has spread like wildfire around the globe since it was first detected in southern Africa in November.

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is much more contagious than previous strains but seems to cause less serious disease.

That has triggered a debate on the virus passing from being a pandemic to becoming endemic — with the implication that the danger will have passed. But the WHO has warned that the sheer numbers of people infected will mean many vulnerable people are still falling seriously ill and dying.

“Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” Tedros said. “Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalisations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities.”

He said there were indications that the Omicron-fuelled surge of COVID cases may have peaked in some countries. This, he said, “gives hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with, but no country is out of the woods yet.” Tedros said there was an urgent need to remove the pressure building on health systems, especially in countries that still have low vaccination coverage. “Now is not the time to give up and wave the white flag,” he said.

“We can still significantly reduce the impact of the current wave by sharing and using health tools effectively, and implementing public health and social measures that we know work.”

Data indicate that existing COVID vaccines are less effective in protecting against Omicron transmission than against previous strains.

But Tedros stressed it remained vital to ensure broader, more equitable access to the jabs.

“With the incredible growth of Omicron globally, new variants are likely to emerge,” Tedros cautioned.

Meanwhile, Japan is set to approve new coronavirus restrictions on a large part of the country, including Tokyo, on Wednesday as it battles record infections fuelled by the Omicron variant. Final approval from the government is expected later in the day, but on Wednesday morning experts backed placing 13 regions “under quasi-emergency measures from January 21 to February 13” Daishiro Yamagiwa, Minister in Charge of the Coronavirus Affairs, told reporters.

The move allows each region to decide what specific measures to implement, but local media said the restrictions were likely to include shorter opening hours for bars and restaurants and possible restrictions on alcohol sales. Meanwhile, The Gates Foundation and British biomedical charity Wellcome on Tuesday pledged $150 million each in the fight against COVID-19 and to prepare for future pandemics.

The $300 million will go to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global partnership founded five years ago that co-leads Covax, the initiative to distribute Covid vaccines across the developing world, alongside the World Health Organization and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

“None of us believe Omicron will be the last variant, or that COVID-19 will be the last pandemic,” British scientist Jeremy Farrar, the Director of Wellcome, said at a press briefing. “We need a truly global response,” he added, urging governments to step up their contributions.

The announced investment makes up only a small fraction of CEPI’s new five-year action plan, which calls for $3.5 billion.

Meanwhile, Australia should brace for more COVID-19 deaths for the next few weeks, authorities said on Wednesday, as record infections fuelled by the Omicron outbreak overwhelmed health systems forcing Victoria to raise its emergency status for hospitals.

“We have seen and we will continue to see deaths, mostly in older people, mostly in people with other chronic diseases,” Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly told broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday, a day after Australia suffered its deadliest day with 77 deaths from the virus.

Amid record infections, Victorian state hospitals from midday Wednesday will move to a ‘code brown’ status, usually reserved for natural disasters or mass casualty events, while reports said nurses had demanded the government to get the help of the Army.


Thursday, January 20, 2022 – 01:00

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