Director general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Health Minister of Kuwait , Basil Hamud el-Sabah hold a joint press conference in Kuwait City, Kuwait on July 28, 2021.

Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference in Kuwait City, Kuwait on July 28, 2021. (Photo: Jaber Abdulkhaleg/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Warning of Omicron Wave, WHO Chief Says 'If We End Inequity, We End the Pandemic'

"Emergence of the Omicron variant has provided a cruel reminder that the world does not have the time to wait."

The head of the World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the new Omicron variant is spreading at an unprecedented rate and reiterated his assessment that ending the coronavirus pandemic requires ending global vaccine inequity.

"If we allow inequity to continue, we allow the pandemic to continue."

"Seventy-seven countries have now reported cases of Omicron, and the reality is that Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn't been detected yet," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing Tuesday.

While the new variant may prove to be milder than others, he said that "the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems."

Rich nations' booster programs that have ramped up in the face of Omicron--against which current vaccines appear les effective--may also trigger another wave of "vaccine hoarding," he said.

"Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death," said Tedros, "simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints."

Tedros highlighted the stark gap in access to even a first round of inoculations, saying that "41 countries have still not been able to vaccinate 10% of their populations, and 98 countries have not reached 40%."

The path to finally reining in Covid-19, he said, is clear.

"If we end inequity, we end the pandemic," said Tedros. "If we allow inequity to continue, we allow the pandemic to continue."

The CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, similarly warned Tuesday of a looming surge in vaccines being hoarded by rich nations.

Along with the WHO and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi co-leads COVAX, the vaccine sharing initiative.

"Emergence of the Omicron variant has provided a cruel reminder that the world does not have the time to wait."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Gavi chief executive Dr. Seth Berkley said with the emergence of the Omicron variant, "We... are beginning to see donors not wanting to donate their doses as fast as they might have because of the uncertainty now of where we are."

"Our long-term concern is, if it turns out that new variant vaccines are required, that there may be an 'Inequity 2.0,' where we see wealthy countries hoard those vaccines once again, like we saw at the beginning of the pandemic," said Berkley.

A trio of social justice and public health advocacy groups, meanwhile, is elevating demands for the Biden administration to take greater action to enable scaled-up global production of mRNA vaccines, like those produced by Moderna and Pfizer.

As the Washington Postreported Wednesday:

Pressure has mounted on the United States in part because global efforts to beat vaccine hoarding and inequality have struggled. Covax, an initiative backed by the World Health Organization that was designed to pool money to ensure vaccine supply for poorer nations, initially aimed to donate 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. It is now racing to deliver a far-diminished target of 800 million doses.

The Post cites a letter to the White House from Partners In Health, PrEP4All, and Public Citizen in which they write that "it is essential the U.S. government scales the ambition of [its] plan to produce billions more doses per year and retains ownership over any new domestic manufacturing capacity that is established."

"Emergence of the Omicron variant," the groups wrote, "has provided a cruel reminder that the world does not have the time to wait. So long as the United States and other high-income country governments allow the SARS-CoV2 virus to circulate unabated due to insufficient vaccine access, we risk the emergence of more variants."

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