At a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing on February 1, 2022, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, stated that WHO is currently tracking four sub-lineages of the Omicron variant of concern, including BA.2.
Tedros noted that it has been two years since he declared a public health emergency of international concern – the highest level of alarm under international law – over the spread of COVID-19. At the time, there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths reported outside China, now more than 370 million cases have been reported, and more than 5.6 million deaths – and we know these numbers are an underestimate.
Since Omicron was first identified just 10 weeks ago, almost 90 million cases have been reported to WHO - more than were reported in the whole of 2020. They are now starting to see a very worrying increase in deaths, in most regions of the world.
“We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines, and because of Omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary,” Tedros continued.
More transmission means more deaths. WHO is not calling for any country to return to so-called lockdown. But they are calling on all countries to protect their people using every tool in the toolkit, not vaccines alone. It’s premature for any country either to surrender, or to declare victory.
He emphasized that we must continue to work to ensure all people have access to vaccines. At the same time, it’s also clear that as this virus evolves, so vaccines may need to evolve.
Variants of SARS-CoV-2 may continue to escape neutralizing antibodies induced by vaccines against prior variants. In addition, the reservoir of beta coronaviruses is large, and new crossovers to humans is likely.
WHO held a global consultation on COVID vaccines research, and on the future need for vaccines that are effective across a broad spectrum of coronaviruses. If we prepare now, the time required for large scale vaccine manufacture will be reduced and lives will be saved.
WHO continues to engage with scientists from the public and private sectors to exchange the latest information and guide the future development of new vaccines. It’s one example of how even as they support countries to fight the pandemic now, they are also working to prepare for the future, and to address its longer-term consequences.