The World Health Organisation warned on Thursday of an increasing number of Covid-19 cases in the Eastern Mediterranean region as vaccine and health inequities were highlighted as the biggest failures of last year.
“Despite the incredible progress in developing effective tools to control and prevent the pandemic … we continue to see increasing numbers of people being infected, too many of whom died of the disease,” Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, said at a press briefing in Cairo.
The region comprises 21 member states and the occupied Palestinian territory, with a population of nearly 679 million people.
The region has reported more than 17.5 million cases and over 317,700 deaths in total, Dr Al Mandhari said, with a total of 206,918 confirmed cases and 1,053 deaths in the first week of 2022.
“Compared to the previous week, this is a dramatic 89 per cent increase in cases, although there was a 13 per cent decrease in deaths,” he said.
“It is almost certain that Omicron variant has caused this shocking increase in cases. We need to prepare.”
The Omicron variant, a coronavirus strain with an unusually large number of mutations that was first identified in South Africa, has been detected in more than 140 nations worldwide.
Fifteen countries in the region have reported Omicron cases, according to the latest Covid-19 WHO weekly epidemiological update published on Tuesday.
They include Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, the occupied Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE.
The WHO recommended that these countries increase the availability of free and convenient rapid diagnostic testing options, which offer high levels of accuracy and are less expensive and less time consuming than PCR tests.
Globally, the number of Covid-19 cases has surpassed 315 million and the pandemic has claimed more than 5.5 million lives.
“Fifteen out of 22 countries in the Region have now officially reported Omicron, and as more and more people become infected, we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” the WHO official said.
The symptoms of the new variant are “less severe” but it has to be taken seriously, Dr Al Mandhari said.
"Symptoms of Omicron are indeed lighter than Delta and less severe, but this does not mean we should underestimate this variant or this disease in general,” he said in closing remarks.
Vaccine inequity, vaccine hesitancy, and low levels of adherence to public health and social measures “have given the virus an opportunity to forge ahead” again in the region, according to the WHO official.
Dr Al Mandhari said that six countries have vaccinated less than 10 per cent of their populations. They are Afghanistan, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria.
“These countries have enough vaccines to supply 40 per cent of the population,” he said, blaming many issues including the “lack of political commitment at the highest levels".
“We are not against boosters — we are against inequity,” he said.
As schools reopen across the region, WHO regional officials urged local health sectors to boost their vaccination efforts and adhere to mitigation measures, such as vaccinating all staff and “high-risk children”.
“This is especially crucial and critical over the coming months, as Omicron continues to spread.”
Worldwide, 36 countries have vaccinated less than 10 per cent of the population, Dr Richard Brennan, Regional Emergency Director, said.
He suggested giving booster vaccine shots to individuals who are at high risk provided that they are “distributed in a way that is consistent with the principles of equity".
Dr Brennan highlighted “long Covid”, where some people have symptoms for 12 weeks or longer, as a “very significant issue”.
“In addition to preventing hospitalisations and deaths, we need to prevent long Covid as well,” he said.
No new variant
Dr Abdinasir Abubakar, WHO manager for infection hazards prevention in the Eastern Mediterranean region, said that there was no new variant recognised by the organisation called Deltacron.
“Every variant is related to the previous one and also the original one, so we cannot combine,” he said.
The WHO recommendation on quarantine length remains 14 days.
Dr Rana Hajjeh, the WHO's director of programme management in the Eastern Mediterranean region, said: “We did not change our recommendations, but we are reviewing the new data.”
To make a decision on shortening the period of isolation, “each country has its own responsibility to review their own evidence,” Dr Abubakar said.
WHO officials expressed hope that 2022 will witness the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Hopefully in 2022…we’ll be able to eliminate this pandemic, but that does not mean eliminating the virus," Dr Al Mandhari, the WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean said.