The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday said more than 15 million new cases of COVID-19 fuelled by Omicron were reported around the world last week, by far the most cases reported in a single seven day period.
Briefing reporters in Geneva, WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, disclosed the “huge spike” was driven by the Omicron variant, rapidly replacing Delta in almost all countries.
Despite the number of cases, the weekly reported deaths have “remained stable” since October last year, he added, at an average of 48,000.
According to him, the number of patients being hospitalised is also increasing in most countries, but it is not at the level seen in previous waves.
He told journalists this was possibly due to the reduced severity of Omicron, and widespread immunity from vaccination or previous infection.
For the WHO chief, while Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated.
“Almost 50 thousand deaths a week is 50 thousand deaths too many,” Mr Ghebreyesus said. “Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths.”
For him, the world cannot “allow this virus a free ride” when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated.
In Africa, for example, more than 85 per cent of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine.
“We cannot end the acute phase of the pandemic unless we close this gap,” he said.
The UN health agency chief then listed some progress towards reaching the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of the population of every country by the middle of this year.
In December, COVAX shipped more than double the number of doses it distributed in November. In the coming days, the initiative should ship its one billionth vaccine dose.
Some of the supply constraints from 2021 are also starting to ease, he said, but there is still have a long way to go.
So far, 90 countries have still not reached the 40 per cent target, and 36 of those countries have vaccinated less than 10 per cent of their populations.
Mr Ghebreyesus also highlighted an interim statement from the WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition, released on Tuesday, stressing that further vaccines are needed that have a greater impact on preventing infection.