WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19

Jan. 14, 2022

Last week, more than 15 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported to WHO from around the world – by far the most cases reported in a single week – and they know this is an underestimate. This huge spike in infections is being driven by the Omicron variant, which is rapidly replacing Delta in almost all countries according to the World Health Organization’s director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The report included the fact that the number of weekly reported deaths has remained stable since October last year, at an average of 48 thousand deaths a week. While the number of patients being hospitalized is increasing in most countries, it is not at the level seen in previous waves. 

This is possibly due to the reduced severity of Omicron, as well as widespread immunity from vaccination or previous infection. While Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated.

However, there are still 50 thousand deaths a week which is too many.  Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths.

In Africa, more than 85% of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine. 90 countries have still not reached the 40% target, and 36 of those countries have vaccinated less than 10% of their populations.

WHO and our partners are actively supporting these countries to overcome the bottlenecks they face, in leadership and coordination, lack of supply visibility, short shelf-life of donated vaccines, limited cold chain capacity, vaccine confidence, health worker shortages, and competing priorities.

TAG-CO-VAC emphasized the urgent need for broader access to the vaccines we have, and that further vaccines are needed that have a greater impact on preventing infection and transmission.  Until such vaccines are developed, the composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated, to ensure they continue to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease.

TAG-CO-VAC also said that a vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be sustainable. The group also emphasized that while some countries recommend boosters, the immediate priority for the world is accelerating access to primary vaccination, particularly for groups at greater risk of developing severe disease.

The overwhelming majority of people admitted to hospitals around the world are unvaccinated.

While vaccines remain very effective at preventing severe disease and death, they do not fully prevent transmission.

More transmission means more hospitalizations, more deaths, more people off work, including teachers and health workers, and more risk of another variant emerging that is even more transmissible and more deadly than Omicron. 

A study published last year showed that more than 1 in 4 health workers globally have experienced mental health issues during the pandemic. And data from several countries show that many health workers have considered leaving or have left their jobs because of poor working conditions, insufficient staffing, and the distress of making life and death decisions every day under intense pressure.

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