Vaccination rates across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are dangerously low and the pandemic is not over despite the prevalence of the Omicron strain of Covid-19, which has a lower fatality rate than the previously dominant Delta strain, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.
WHO officials said the emergence of new, more deadly variants of the disease was still possible, although that was only one scenario for the pandemic.
Just 42 per cent of the Eastern Mediterranean region is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, allowing continued transmission of the virus despite the decline in cases and deaths in recent weeks.
The region stretching from Morocco to Pakistan includes 22 countries and territories.
“The pandemic remains a public health emergency of international concern. This is not yet the time to drop our guard,” Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean (Emro), said at a briefing in Cairo.
The region has reported almost 21.7 million confirmed cases and nearly 342,000 deaths.
The number of weekly newly-reported Covid-19 cases in the region has decreased by 21 per cent and deaths by 24 per cent, compared with last week, in line with global trends.
However, two countries in the region saw an increase in new cases and six saw an increase in deaths.
“Even though deaths are decreasing to some of the lowest numbers since the start of the pandemic, transmission remains high, vaccination coverage remains low in several countries and the relaxation of public health and social measures is still being widely observed, allowing continued transmission and the risk of new variants emerging,” Dr Al Mandhari said.
The WHO had set a global vaccination coverage target of 40 per cent by the end of last year and 70 per cent by the end of June.
About 60 per cent of the global population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, an Oxford-based data research service.
In the Eastern Mediterranean region, the coverage varies widely. A handful of countries, such as Syria and Yemen, have vaccinated less than 10 per cent of their populations. At the same time, five countries — the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — have already achieved the 70 per cent target.
“These are the countries that started their vaccination programmes early on,” said Rana Hajjeh, director of programme management at WHO Emro.
It is important to enhance vaccination rates in the region to reach “if not 70 per cent, at least 40 per cent”, with a focus on vulnerable and high-risk groups, she said.
There is adequate vaccine supply, but there are access challenges due to instability and conflicts and the problem of “vaccine hesitancy”, Dr Al Mandhari said.
The region will host a few major mass gathering events this year, including the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia and the Fifa World Cup in Qatar, which will require increased vigilance and systems in place to avoid Covid-19 transmission, he said.
Saudi Arabia announced it will allow one million pilgrims to perform Hajj this year, which takes place in July, after reducing numbers in the past two years due to the pandemic. All pilgrims must be fully immunised against Covid-19 and those arriving from abroad must submit a negative PCR test.
Dr Al Mandhari also encouraged countries to scale up surveillance, testing and genome sequencing to identify new variants early.
Twenty countries in the region have reported the Delta variant and 17 have reported Omicron, which remains the dominant variant circulating regionally and globally.
New variant concerns
Globally, new versions of the Omicron variant have fuelled a rise in infections in some countries, including the US and UK.
“The mutation of viruses is very common and it’s not unexpected,” said Dr Abdinasir Abubakar, manager for infectious hazards prevention at WHO Emro.
The WHO has identified three main scenarios for the future of the coronavirus, said Richard Brennan, regional emergency director at WHO Emro.
The first is that the virus continues to evolve and “we’ll be likely to see further spikes in cases … that will require periodic boosters and seasonal vaccinations”, Dr Brennan said.
The second is the best-case scenario that the virus becomes less severe and the third is the worst-case scenario where it becomes more severe and more transmissible.
“Currently it is very difficult to foresee when this pandemic will come to an end,” Dr Hajjeh said.
“We are desperately hopeful that it will come to an end soon, but currently we have to focus on how to eradicate the pandemic — not when.”