Worst of Omicron wave ‘done with’ says WHO - but pandemic far from over

Vaccines are the best defence against severe disease and death, says the WHO (Photo: Getty Images)
Vaccines are the best defence against severe disease and death, says the WHO (Photo: Getty Images)

The worst of the Omicron wave may have reached its peak in several countries, global health leaders have said.

Latest data shows that Covid-19 case numbers and deaths are beginning to stabilise in some locations, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that “no country is out of the woods yet”.

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What’s been said?

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said that coronavirus case numbers seem to have peaked in several countries, giving hope that the worst of the latest wave may now be over.

However, the Omicron variant is still sweeping across the world, with 18 million cases reported last week, and areas with low vaccination rates means many people are still vulnerable to severe illness.

Dr Ghebreyesus said that while there are positive signs of cases and hospitalisations abating, the pandemic is still “nowhere near over” and it is possible that new variants may yet emerge.

Speaking at a press briefing, he said: “The number of deaths remains stable for the moment but we are concerned about the impact Omicron is having on already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems

“In some countries, cases seem to have peaked, which gives hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with, but no country is out of the woods yet.

“I remain particularly concerned about many countries that have low vaccination rates, as people are many times more at risk of severe illness and death if they are unvaccinated.

“Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response and costs more lives.”

‘Next few weeks are critical’

Dr Ghebreyesus stressed that Omicron is still causing hospitalisations and deaths, and warned that even less severe cases are leaving health facilities inundated.

He said that the next few weeks “remain really critical” as pressure on healthcare systems and staff are expected to be high.

He added: “The virus is circulating far too intensely with many still vulnerable.

“For many countries, the next few weeks remain really critical for health workers and health systems and I urge everyone to do their best to reduce risk of infection so that you can help take pressure off the system.

“Now is not the time to give up and wave the white flag.

“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.”

Vaccines are key to preventing severe disease

The WHO director said the global vaccine sharing facility Covax delivered its one billionth dose of vaccine over the weekend, but more still needed to be done to achieve vaccine equality around the world.

While the current vaccines are less effective at preventing infection and transmission of Omicron than previous variants, Dr Ghebreyesus said the jabs are still “exceptionally good at averting severe disease and death”.

And this is key to preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies programme, said that at the moment, the global health body was “not recommending a change in the composition of the vaccine”.

However, he said more data and discussions are needed to decide what is needed in regard to future vaccines, suggesting that the primary course of the vaccine may change in future.

Currently, most adults in the UK have had two initial Covid-19 vaccines, typically Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca, as their primary course of vaccine.

Some people with compromised immune systems were offered three doses as part of their primary course.

All British adults were then offered booster doses to supplement this initial course.

Dr Ryan said: “I suspect over time, we will come up with an evolved way of looking at what we consider to be primary series.

“And it may be that a healthy adult has a primary series of two doses.

“It may be that someone in an older age group has a primary series of three or four doses.

“That’s what we’re learning and that’s why we need to collect the data to be able to understand what the long term best decisions are in deploying the vaccines that we have at our disposal.”