Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organisation (WHO), has warned that COVID-19 is not over in spite of reports that COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined significantly.
Mr Ghebreyesus said this at the opening of the World Health Assembly on Sunday at Geneva, Switzerland.
World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO comprised of representatives of 194 countries.
Noting that it was the first time since 2019 that the Assembly could take place in-person, he asked ministers where the world stood two years into the most severe health crisis in a century.
The director general told health ministers that it was not time to lower the guard.
“So, is COVID-19 over? No, it’s most certainly not over. I know that’s not the message you want to hear, and it’s definitely not the message I want to deliver,” he noted.
He added that although in many countries all restrictions had been lifted and “life looks much like it did before the pandemic, reported cases are increasing in almost 70 countries in all regions, because testing rates have plummeted.”
Mr Ghebreyesus warned that reported deaths are also rising in Africa, the continent with the lowest vaccination coverage.
“This virus has surprised us at every turn – a storm that has torn through communities again and again, and we still can’t predict its path, or its intensity,” he emphasised.
While agreeing that there is progress with 60 per cent of the world’s population already vaccinated, he reminded that almost one billion people in lower-income countries remain unvaccinated.
“It’s not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere… Only 57 countries have vaccinated 70 per cent of their population – almost all of them high-income countries,” he noted.
WHO chief also warned that increasing transmission means more deaths and more risk of a new variant emerging, and the current decline of testing and sequencing means “we are blinding ourselves to the evolution of the virus.”
He pointed out as well that in some countries there is still insufficient political commitment to roll out vaccines, and there are still gaps in operational and financial capacity.
“And in all, we see vaccine hesitancy driven by misinformation and disinformation,” he added.
Mr Ghebreyesus also mentioned that WHO’s primary focus now would be to support countries to turn vaccines into vaccinations as fast as possible, but they are still seeing supply-side problems for tests and therapeutics with insufficient funds and access.
“The pandemic will not magically disappear. But we can end it. We have the knowledge. We have the tools. Science has given us the upper hand,” he said.
He called on countries to work together to reach 70 per cent of vaccination coverage.
“As we speak, our colleagues around the world are responding to outbreaks of Ebola in DRC, monkeypox and hepatitis of unknown cause, and complex humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine and Yemen,” Mr Ghebreyesus told ministers. “We face a formidable convergence of disease, drought, famine and war, fuelled by climate change, inequity and geopolitical rivalry.”
The WHO director-general also announced on Sunday six awards to recognise outstanding contributions to advancing global health, demonstrated leadership and commitment to regional health issues.
The winners included British-Lebanese psychiatrist, Ahmed Hankir, youth sports advocate, Ludmila Sofia Oliveira Varela, and polio workers in Afghanistan.
The 75th World Health Assembly is being held in Geneva from 28 May 22 to 28.
It is the first in-person health assembly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.