The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued stern warnings on December 1 on the dangers of vaccination apathy and the EU put mandatory jabs on the table, as the US registered its first case of the fast-spreading Omicron strain of the coronavirus.
The new variant, first reported to the WHO by South Africa a week ago, has quickly popped up across continents, darkening economic forecasts and deepening fears of another difficult winter in the northern hemisphere.
“Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing – a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reminding the world that the Delta variant “accounts for almost all cases”.
“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron,” he said.
The WHO says it could take several weeks to understand whether or not Omicron is more transmissible, and whether it results in more severe disease – as well as how effective current treatments and vaccines are against the variant.
Its detection and spread, however, have highlighted that the now nearly two-year global fight against Covid-19 is far from over.
In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “understandable and appropriate” to discuss how to “encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination” in the bloc – although only individual member states can impose vaccine mandates.
Austria has already said it will make Covid jabs compulsory next February, Germany is considering a similar approach, and Greece said on November 30 it would mandate vaccines for over-60s.
The US, officially the world’s hardest-hit country, announced it had detected its first Omicron case, a fully vaccinated traveller from South Africa who is recovering from mild symptoms.
Top US infectious diseases specialist Anthony Fauci stressed that fully vaccinated adults should seek a booster when eligible to give themselves the best possible protection.
“Our experience with variants such as the Delta variant is that even though the vaccine isn’t specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection,” he said.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also recorded their first cases of Omicron, making the Gulf the latest region to be affected.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control meanwhile recommended that children aged five to 11 who are at risk of severe Covid should be considered a “priority group” for vaccination.
UN chief slams travel bans
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned Omicron threatens the world’s recovery and lowered growth estimates for 2021 from 5.7 per cent to 5.6 per cent.
The Paris-based OECD said the recovery had “lost momentum and is becoming increasingly imbalanced” and would remain “precarious” until vaccines were deployed worldwide.
Omicron has prompted governments around the globe to reimpose travel restrictions, mostly targeting southern Africa. Japan has suspended new flight bookings into the country.
On December 1, UN secretary-general Guterres Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing chorus of criticism against such bans, calling them “deeply unfair and punitive” as well as “ineffective”.