It's imperative for the world to quickly change strategies and priorities to deal with danger posed by Omicron

Some 41 nations have still not been able to vaccinate even 10 per cent of their population and 98 nations have not yet reached figure of even 40 per cent. To end the pandemic, such inequality must end

Representative photo
Representative photo

Dr Gyan Pathak

A rapid increase in the number of cases of people falling prey to the Omicron COVID-19 variant is imminent, reads the latest European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warning. The other day the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that a large number of patients could overwhelm the health facilities available even if it may not cause too serious a medical condition for a majority of the patients. Moreover, it is yet too early to say with certainty that Omicron would not produce serious medical conditions requiring hospitalization.

India needs the highest level of alertness since its own think tank, the NITI Aayog, admitted only two days ago that our vaccines may not be effective against the new variant which may may escape immunity triggered by inoculation. V K Paul, member (health) on the Aayog’s panel, said, “In the wake of the latest three weeks of living with Omicron, we have seen how such doubts have come up. … We still don’t have the final picture and that worries us.”

India, and the world, must also heed the warning issued by the top health adviser of the United Kingdom who said that Omicron infections could reach one million per day by the end of this month and the National Health Service would face significant pressure if only a fraction of these newly infected need to be hospitalized. It is indeed a troubling scenario in a country like UK where some 70 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

ECDC Director Andrea Ammon has said, “We assess the probability of further spread of the Omicron variant in the EU or EEA as very high, and it is considered very likely to cause additional hospitalizations and fatalities.”

The latest warning from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the WHO, urges the world not to underestimate Omicron. The Omicron variant is “probably” now present in most of the world’s countries and it would be a mistake to dismiss the COVID-19 strain as “mild”, he has said.

According to the latest information, the Omicron variant is now present in 77 countries within 20 days after it being declared “Variant of Concern” by the WHO on November 26.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. We are concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild,” Ghebreyesus has said. “Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril”.

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems. … Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Countries can – and must – prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today,” he suggested.

The whole approach adopted by the world regarding containment of the novel Coronavirus obvious does not work today. As the virus goes on mutating into new variants, the strategies to overcome them also need appropriate change so as to remain effective. Ghebreyesus has rightly warned that making choices about strategies to halt the pandemic was a wrong approach. “It’s not vaccines instead of distancing, It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all, do it consistently, do it well,” he has said.

Despite all this, vaccination seems to be an effective option, despite the fear that the Omicron variant may escape the immunity created by the vaccines or the infection itself. More so because the evolving evidence suggests only a small decline in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe disease and death, as Ghebreyesus has said.

It is important because in most countries, most of the people who are being hospitalized and dying are those who have not been vaccinated.

It must therefore be noted that the WHO’s COVAX vaccine rollout initiative has shipped more vaccines in the last 10 weeks than in the first 9 months of the year since inoculation drive was launched. And the beneficiary countries have been using the vaccines as fast as they have been supplied with.

However, there are bottlenecks. There are many countries, especially the poor countries, who are facing tremendous challenges rolling out vaccines and scaling up the inoculation drive rapidly due to lack of supply of the vaccines in required quantities. “Although we expect further improvements in supply, there are no guarantees, and the hard-won gains we have made are fragile,” the WHO chief has said.

In this scenario, craving for booster doses is wrong. Some countries have resorted to booster rollouts for all over 18 years of age despite a lack of evidence that they will be effective. “WHO is concerned that such programmes will repeat the vaccine hoarding we saw this year, and exacerbate inequality,” Ghebreyesus has said.

Moreover, booster doses for low risk people endangers the lives of the high risk people who are yet to get primary doses chiefly due to supply constraints owing to reasons like production capacity and poverty.

Inequality is stark. Some 41 countries have still not been able to vaccinate even 10 per cent of their population and 98 countries have not yet reached the figure of even 40 per cent. If the world wants to end the pandemic, we must end the inequality.

“If we allow inequity to continue, we allow the pandemic to continue,” the WHO chief has said. The priority therefore must be to vaccinate all those who are still unvaccinated, both in the rich counties who have greater access to vaccines and the poor countries who don’t. The world must change strategies, priorities, and ramp up efforts since the gains of the past are fragile.

(IPA Service)

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