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17th May 2022

Omicron shows need for pandemic global pact, WHO says

  • The new Omicron variant has also returned focus to vaccine equality - since novel Covid variants are more likely to emerge in low-vaccine regions (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia)
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The emergence of the new and more-contagious Omicron Covid-19 variant reveals "why the world needs a new accord on pandemics," the chief of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday (29 November), calling for a "legally-binding" agreement.

The new global deal, expected by 2024, would provide a framework for global pandemic preparedness, strengthening alert systems, data-sharing and research for vaccines and treatments.

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The Omicron variant shows how "perilous and precarious" the situation was, the director-general of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned when opening a special session to discuss global cooperation in the fight against pandemics.

"Our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores," he said, arguing that South Africa and Botswana should be praised and not "penalised" for their scientific work.

The new strain was first detected in South Africa, but it has been reported in at least a dozen countries around the world since – including the UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Portugal, Israel, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia.

The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that South Africa's analytic work was "a model of how international cooperation should work in the face of cross-border health threats".

She argued that "only collective, effective and immediate responses can work against viruses that do not respect either borders or good intentions".

But the EU is among the long list of countries that have put in place travel restrictions on South Africa and neighbouring countries - in a bid to control the spread of the Omicron variant, which has raised the alarm over its unprecedented number of mutations.

"Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic," the WHO said, according to Reuters.

However, it is still unclear whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more reinfections, or more risk of evading vaccines, Tedros pointed out.

Nevertheless, the EU, the US, Canada, the UK, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have all put in place travel restrictions against South Africa and neighbouring countries.

And others, like Japan and Israel, have taken an even tougher approach, banning all foreigners from entering the country.

Lack of coordination - again?

The European Commission, meanwhile, has warned member states against imposing further travel restrictions on those who have a valid EU digital Covid-19 certificate.

"Member states should refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on holders of the EU digital Covid-19 certificate, in particular the holders of vaccination and recovery certificate," a commission spokesperson said on Monday.

Under the rules governing the bloc's Covid-19 certificate, EU countries can trigger an "emergency brake" to reintroduce travel restrictions if the epidemiological situation worsens rapidly, or there are many cases reported due to variants.

However, the EU executive said that it is paramount for member states to discuss among themselves and coordinate their actions.

Portugal, for example, announced last week that all passengers flying into the country will have to show a negative Covid test as of Wednesday.

Vaccine inequality

The Omicron variant has also returned the focus to vaccine equality, since novel Covid variants are more likely to emerge in low-vaccine regions.

Only 0.6 percent of vaccine doses have been administered in low-income countries, most of them in Africa, compare to over 80 percent in wealthy countries.

"Vaccine equity is not charity, it is in every country's best interests," said Tedros.

The WHO has recommended that health workers, older people and other at-risk groups must be vaccinated in all countries before boosters shots are given to the already-vaccinated healthy adults – contrary to the recent guidance issued by EU agencies in favour of a third dose for all adults.

Ministers from the World Trade Organization were expected to gather this week to discuss the possibility of waiving patent and other intellectual property protections linked to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

But the meeting itself was postponed - due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Surge of infections triggers new restrictions, despite vaccination

The spike in Covid-19 infections is prompting some EU governments to introduce lockdown measures and restrictions for the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, travel operators are calling for coordination and a common approach for booster doses and valid certificates.

Will Christmas be cancelled again?

The surge of infections and emergence of the more-transmissible variant Omicron has raised concerns about possible lockdown restrictions in the EU, but for the thousands of Europeans who recently tested positive Christmas is already cancelled.

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