As infections climb, world health leaders urge a vaccine speedup
By Isabella Kwai
The World Health Organization estimated earlier this week that by the end of the year, 1 in 10 people across Europe and Central Asia overall will have had a confirmed case of the coronavirus, and called on governments to speed up vaccination efforts as the world races to curb the spread of the delta and omicron variants.
With detected cases of the omicron variant rising in the region as countries turn a laser focus on finding them, several countries in Europe adopted entry rules and travel bans last week, even as questions remain about the transmissibility and seriousness of omicron. Still, the uncertainty alongside a surge of delta variant-driven infections is fueling worries that even tougher restrictions are looming ahead of an anticipated holiday period.
Some early signs exist that omicron may cause only mild illness, though that observation was based mainly on South Africa’s cases among young people, who are less likely overall to become severely ill from COVID. The true impact of the virus is not always felt immediately, with hospitalizations and deaths often lagging considerably behind initial outbreaks.
And at the moment, scientists say there is no reason to believe omicron is impervious to existing vaccines, although they may turn out to be less protective to some unknown degree.
In a virtual news conference, WHO experts highlighted the need for countries to escalate vaccination efforts. Vaccines are estimated to have prevented at least 470,000 deaths from December 2020 to November 2021, according to the WHO and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Worldwide, about 73% of shots that have gone into arms have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. Only 0.8% of doses have been administered in low-income countries.
Despite the clear-cut benefits of vaccines, mandates requiring their use should be a “last resort” after all other options had been exhausted, said Dr. Hans Kluge, the organization’s Europe director. “We need to do everything possible to increase the vaccine uptake within a legal and cultural context of each specific community and country,” he said.
Dozens of countries have imposed new travel measures in response to omicron, the agency said, but it stressed that travel bans were not effective at stemming the spread of the virus. “Disease outbreaks are contained at their source, not at their borders,” Smallwood said.
Referring to the recent trajectory of the virus overall, Kluge said the highest current rates of new cases were occurring in children, the last age group eligible to receive the vaccine.
“There will be further spread,” said Dr. Catherine Smallwood, a WHO senior emergency officer, adding that the “extent and rapidity and speed of that spread is still a question.”
On Tuesday, Spain’s health ministry extended the nation’s vaccination rollout to children between 5 and 11 years of age amid concerns about the spread of the omicron variant, particularly as more people gather for Christmas parties.