Less than 10 per cent of people living in the Eastern Mediterranean region have received at least one dose of the vaccine, a leading World Health Organisation official said on Wednesday.
In half of the 21 countries, the coverage is less than 5 per cent, said Dr Rana Hajjeh, director of programmes management at WHO in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, during a virtual webinar.
“This is very low coverage and does not help us to achieve our goal of herd immunity,” Dr Hajjeh said.
Only Bahrain and the UAE have achieved a high first dose vaccination rate of over 50 per cent.
Challenges include a severe vaccine shortfall, the emergence of new variants, Covid-19 fatigue, the failure of many people to adhere to public health and social distancing measures, as well as the spread of rumours and misinformation, she said.
The region, as defined by the WHO, comprises 21 countries and the Palestinian Territories, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, with a population of nearly 679 million people.
More than 10.3 million Covid-19 cases and over 206,000 deaths have been reported in the region.
While the total number of cases has declined over the past six weeks and the number of deaths has stabilised, “we are certainly not out of the woods yet”, Dr Hajjeh said.
Nine countries reported an increase in cases last week, compared to the previous week, including Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, according to the WHO. Eleven countries reported an increase in deaths, with the highest increases reported from Sudan, Afghanistan and Morocco.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom recently called on countries to increase a target of vaccinating 20 per cent of the world’s population by the end of the year to 30 per cent.
However, the region is facing a shortfall of at least 200 million doses to hit even the lower 20 per cent target.
“Out of the 300 million doses needed in the region based on the 20 per cent target, we have administered 70 million doses, so we need over 200 million to achieve the objective,” Dr Hajjeh said.
About 13 million doses have been delivered to the region via the Covax facility, which aims to provide equitable access to the vaccine.
“We are working with the donor countries in order to secure the larger part of the vaccine doses and with Covax to accelerate delivery to the countries of the region,” Dr Hajjeh said.
Variants continue to circulate across the region, with 17 countries reporting the detection of the variant of concern (VOC) Alpha, 10 reporting VOC Beta, three VOC Gamma and six VOC Delta.
Fourteen countries in the region now have local capacity to conduct genomic sequencing in order to detect Covid-19 variants of concern, while the other eight countries are receiving WHO support to sequence abroad.
“As the WHO, we are monitoring closely all of the variants and we are trying to understand if such variants lead to a faster transmission compared to the original virus or may lead to a more severe disease. But we do not have evidence yet,” Dr Hajjeh said.
“The only method or means to avoid variants is to stop the transmission of the virus by abiding by preventive measures, in addition to receiving the vaccine,” she added.