Widespread COVID-19 vaccine boosters may prolong pandemic, WHO warns

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The World Health Organization (WHO) again criticized the widespread booster programs for COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday as poor countries still struggle to obtain the initial doses, and warned that unequal access to immunizations can give lead to more mutations of the coronavirus that prolong the pandemic.

“Widespread booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic, rather than end it, by diverting supplies to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunities to spread and mutate“Said WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press conference.

The WHO comments come as health authorities in numerous wealthy countries promote booster vaccination amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant. Israel announced Tuesday that it will offer a fourth dose of the vaccine to people over the age of 60.

The Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE), which issues recommendations on vaccination, concluded that the goal must continue to be the reduction of deaths and serious diseases, so the introduction of booster doses must be “firmly based on evidence and aimed at the population groups most at risk ”and those“ necessary to protect the health system ”.

It is important to remember that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths occur in unvaccinated people, not in people who have not received the booster.“Tedros said. “We must be very clear that the vaccines we have are still effective against the delta and omicron variants.”

The director of the UN health agency recalled that three out of every four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated and that only half of the countries have managed to vaccinate 40% of their population, “due to the distortion of the global supply ”.

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Countries in Africa receive vaccines through the UN COVAX mechanism.

Vaccine inequality is “the most horrible injustice of 2021,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program.

Nowadays, about 20% of all vaccine doses given each day are given as boosters or additional doses. “No country can push its way out of the pandemic,” emphasized Tedros.

WHO projections show that vaccine supplies should be sufficient to immunize the entire world’s adult population, and to boost high-risk populations, in the first quarter of 2022. However, only later in 2022 the supply will be sufficient for the extensive use of braces in all adults.

For this reason, the WHO once again called on countries and manufacturers to prioritize COVAX and the African Union vaccine procurement fund, and called on them to work together so that all countries reach the 40% target. as soon as possible, and 70% by mid-2022.

The end of the pandemic in 2022

2022 “has to be the year of the end of the pandemic” of COVID-19, urged Tedros. “And it must also be the beginning of something else: a new era of solidarity.”

The Ethiopian specialist said that 2021 “has been a painful year for many”, with 3.5 million deaths from COVID-19, but “it cannot be a lost year”.

Tedros said he remains hopeful because scientists now know the virus well and the world has the tools to deal with it. “The key is to apply the measures in a comprehensive way. If we do not apply them all, worldwide, we will not be able to end this pandemic, “he remarked.

Michael Ryan, however, clarified that the end “is not even close.” The person in charge of emergencies considers that there is a lack of “collective will” to apply the measures. “The population feels confused by the different decisions that are being taken and there is a serious crisis of confidence,” he added.

The expansion of omicron

Unsplash / Matteo Jorjoson

Italy, like many other countries, has already confirmed its first case of the new variant of COVID-19, omicron. As the December holidays approach, precautions need to be taken to prevent the spread of the new variant.

The omicron variant has been reported in 106 countries. The rapid expansion is explained by the mutations that make it more transmissible, because it causes more reinfections among people who have already passed the disease and can elude some vaccines and because, according to some preliminary studies, it infects the upper respiratory tract more than the lungs, facilitating its spread.

Asked about the possibility that omicron causes a milder form of COVID-19 and contributes to the virus becoming endemic, María Van Kerkhove, the epidemiologist leading the WHO response, said that it is “critical” to understand that it is still “too early” to conclude if it is milder than delta, because the variant has not circulated enough and asked citizens and governments for caution.

“We are not yet in an endemic situation, but in the middle of a pandemic,” he said, explaining that the coronavirus will continue to “evolve” and become “more suitable. “If it will be more serious or not, we do not know,” he explained.

Thanks to vaccines, COVID-19 is expected to cause fewer hospitalizations and deaths, but there will still be “outbreaks” among the unvaccinated or those who have not received the full schedule.

“We remain humble because this coronavirus may still have several tricks up its sleeve,” Van Kerkhove concluded.

New recommendations for the use of masks

WHO / P. Phutpheng

Nurses greet visitors at a clinic set up in a Thai hospital to treat people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms

Tedros announced that the WHO has published updated guidance for healthcare personnel, recommending the use of a respirator or a medical mask, in addition to other personal protective equipment, when entering a room where there is a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patient.

Respirators, which include the masks known as N95, FFP2 and others, “should especially be used in healthcare settings where ventilation is known to be poor,” the document says.

“However, we are painfully aware that many healthcare workers around the world cannot access respirators,” said Tedros, who called on manufacturers and countries to increase production, purchasing and distribution.

“Another storm is coming in Europe”

Center hospitalier d’Argenteuil.

France’s emergency service is at the forefront of the coronavirus crisis.

Last week, Europe and Central Asia saw 27,000 deaths from COVID-19 and 2.6 million new cases. Infections, which are still predominantly delta variant, are now 40% higher than in the same period last year.

Since its identification 27 days ago, the omicron variant has been detected in at least 38 of the 53 member states of the WHO European region.

We see another storm brewing: omicron is becoming, or has already become, dominant in several countries, including Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, where their number is doubling every day and a half or three days, generating transmission rates never seen before ” informed the director of the regional branch of the Organization, Hans Kluge.

Kluge predicted that, in a few weeks, omicron will dominate in more countries in the region, “Leading health systems, already on the edge, to an emergency situation.” It is likely, he added, that omicron will become the dominant variant circulating in the region.

“The high volume of new COVID-19 infections could lead to more hospitalizations and widespread disruption of health systems and other critical services,” Kluge emphasized. “Unfortunately, it has already led to hospitalizations and deaths.”

According to the regional director, people who have recovered from COVID-19 are three to five times more likely to be re-infected with omicron compared to Delta.

Kluge recalled that the vaccine offers the best protection, along with other measures: avoid crowded, closed and confined spaces; maintain a physical distance from others; Wash hands frequently; wear a mask; coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow or tissue; and adequately ventilate interior spaces.

“At this time of year when there are many social gatherings, assess your risk and that of others and prioritize the events most important to you ”, asked.

Furthermore, he said, Governments and authorities must prepare response systems for a significant increase in cases. Health authorities must increase the capacity for analysis and tracking; involve primary care in case management; prepare hospitals for increased activity; and supporting frontline and healthcare workers.

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