GENEVA -- The head of the World Health Organization insisted Wednesday that “COVID isn't finished with us,” appealing for more support to fight the pandemic after his agency reported that new infections fell but virus deaths rose worldwide over the past week.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, launching a new $23 billion campaign to fund WHO's efforts to lead a fair rollout of COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines around the world, cautioned that “diseases know no borders” and the highly-transmissible omicron variant has shown that “any feeling of safety can change in a moment.”
WHO's weekly epidemiological report, released late Tuesday, showed that case counts fell 17% worldwide over the last week — including a 50% decline in the United States — while deaths globally rose 7%.
“Depending on where you live, it might feel like the COVID-19 pandemic is almost over, or, it might feel like it is at its worst," Tedros said. “But wherever you live, COVID isn’t finished with us."
“We know this virus will continue to evolve, but we are not defenseless,” he added. “We have the tools to prevent this disease, test for it and to treat it.”
Omicron, which is more contagious than other variants but has generally brought less-severe disease, made up nearly 97% of all cases tallied by the international virus-tracking platform known as GISAID. Just over 3% were of the delta variant.
In all, WHO reported more than 19 million new COVID-19 cases and just under 68,000 new deaths from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6. Experts say the figures are believed to greatly underestimate the real toll from the pandemic.
Case counts fell in each of WHO's six regions except its eastern Mediterranean zone, which reported a 36% jump, notably with increases in Afghanistan, Iran and Jordan.
In Europe, new infections fell 7% — led by substantial declines in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain — even as countries in Eastern Europe like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia posted increases in daily infections. In the Americas, case counts fell 36%, with the United States — still the single most-affected country — reporting 1.87 million new cases, down 50% from the previous week.
Vaccines appeared to be most effective to prevent severe disease from omicron. The agency said booster doses increased estimates of vaccine effectiveness to over 75% for all vaccines for which data are available, though the rates declined after three to six months after injection.
WHO, bringing together leaders like South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre as well as health ministers, led a pitch on Wednesday for new funding for its ACT-Accelerator program to get COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to people around the world.
“If you want to ensure vaccinations for everyone to end this pandemic, we must first inject fairness into the system," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. ”Vaccine inequity is the biggest moral failure of our times, and people and countries are paying the price.”
Ramaphosa said rich countries have administered 14 times more doses of life-saving vaccines and carried out 80 times more tests than have low-income countries. In Africa, he said, just 8% of people are fully vaccinated. While many wealthy countries roll out third or even fourth booster doses, he noted that many vulnerable health workers and elderly people in Africa “remain unprotected.”
“The end of this pandemic is in sight, but only if we act together for equity, and for solidarity,” he said.
The appeal comes as many rich Western countries — key donors for WHO — have been easing restrictions to fight the pandemic after COVID-19 cases have begun falling.
“Let’s be honest. It’s not self-evident that that leaders in the North — if you put it that way, will respond" to support global efforts to fight COVID-19, Gahr Støre said. But he pushed for “advocacy” to show leaders that “it is really in their interest to choose to stay committed and be engaged.”
“If we have some kind of sleepwalking out of a shortsighted view on your national omicron challenge, around the next corner, you may be very badly surprised,” he said, directing comments to officials in wealthy nations.
This story corrects that COVID-19 deaths rose 7% last week, not declined, and deletes an incorrect reference to new cases falling in Germany.
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