Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said on Wednesday that if that target is reached by then, the world could start to move on from the current phase of the pandemic.
“I want governments, industry and civil society to work with us on a campaign that targets 70 per cent vaccine coverage in every country by the start of July,” he said.
“I still remain optimistic this can be the year we could not only end the acute stage of the pandemic, but also chart a path to stronger health security.”
Tedros made the comments at a WHO COVID-19 update on Wednesday, just two days before the world hits the two-year anniversary of the discovery of the coronavirus.
It was on New Year’s Eve in 2019 when China first alerted the WHO to 27 cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in the city of Wuhan.
Since then, the disease has spread across the globe and produced multiple variants, the latest of which is Omicron – a variant driving up cases across the world, including in Canada.
Scientists have worked to find ways to combat the virus, including the creation of COVID-19 vaccines, which countries like Canada have purchased in abundance.
Among its entire population, Canada has a vaccination rate of 76 per cent, the government reports. It is now rolling out booster programs to top immunity levels in light of the Omicron variant.
But other countries don’t have the opportunity to boost and are still trying to vaccinate their population, Tedros warns.
“This is the time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by ending global vaccine inequity,” he said.
“I call on leaders of rich countries and manufacturers to learn the lessons of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and now Omicron and work together to reach the 70 per cent vaccination coverage.”
‘New variants’ could still emerge
In driving home his ask, Tedros warns that the longer the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the more chances for new variants like Omicron to emerge.
Omicron, which was discovered in late November by South African scientists, is spreading across the world and driving up infections in both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the WHO has warned.
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“It is possible that new variants could evade our countermeasures and become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations,” Tedros said.
“Any new vaccine update would potentially mean a new supply shortage, so it’s important that we focus on building up local manufacturing supply to help end this pandemic and prepare for future ones.”
WHO officials on Wednesday not only pressed for more global vaccine sharing, but also for countries to inoculate their most vulnerable populations, like the elderly and immunocompromised.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said getting the most vulnerable vaccinated is key in ending the acute phase of the pandemic.
“The virus itself is very unlikely to go away completely and will probably settle down into a pattern of transmission (low-level) causing occasional outbreaks in under-vaccinated populations, and we hope that is the end game here,” he said.
“By getting the vaccine equity equation right, by continuing to implement the measures we have at our disposal, by continuing to protect our most vulnerable … we can bring the acute phase of the pandemic, the phase of death and hospitalization, to an end.”
Don’t write off Omicron yet, WHO says
Since its discovery, Omicron has not only spread across the world but is also prompting countries to reimpose protective measures like gathering and capacity limits to curb its spread.
While researchers scramble to get a full understanding of the variant, preliminary evidence from several studies suggests Omicron is causing milder illness compared to other variants, like Delta.
However, its ability to transmit easily can still result in a flood of new patients heading into hospital for treatments, even if their stays are not long, the WHO has warned.
Ryan said Omicron has been spreading in younger populations, which generally have a stronger immune response. He is worried about labelling Omicron as milder right now in anticipation of how it will impact older populations.
“It looks more transmissible, it looks like it has a shorter incubation period, it looks like it’s causing a milder disease, and that’s on the face of it, looking at the population it’s infecting,” he said.
“What we haven’t seen is the Omicron wave fully established in the broader population, and I’m a little nervous to make positive predictions until we see how well vaccine protection is going to work in those older and more vulnerable populations, to see whether previous infection or vaccination is going to provide the same levels of protection against severe disease and hospitalizations.”
“The high transmissibility could increase hospitalizations and deaths.… We shouldn’t undermine the bad news by focusing on the good news,” he said.
“We will know more, but until then it’s better not to undermine.… We have to be very careful in that narrative because what we see on the other side is more hospitalizations are also seen in some countries, and more deaths.”