As Asia battles a surge of coronavirus infections and much of the world remains unvaccinated, the head of the World Health Organization said it is imperative that richer nations share their vaccines globally.
(CN) — With so much of the world still unvaccinated, the chief of the World Health Organization on Friday told richer countries to delay vaccinating children and donate vaccines to fight a pandemic that is dangerously spreading through Southeast Asia.
“Covid-19 has already cost more than 3.3 million lives and we’re on track for the second year of this pandemic to be far more deadly than the first,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing Friday at the agency’s Geneva headquarters.
The past week saw the number of new deaths and infections dip slightly, but this may only be a short respite as many Asian nations that neighbor India, where a ghastly outbreak is ravaging large swaths of the country, report an uptick in cases. Globally, about 88,289 new deaths were reported in the past week, about 2,000 fewer than the previous week, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
With vaccinations mostly taking place in richer countries, Tedros urged wealthier regions to donate more vaccines to his agency’s global distribution efforts, known as Covax, and he chided nations for vaccinating young people, including children, while health workers around the world remain unvaccinated. Children are much less vulnerable to the new virus. Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden said he wants children age 12 and above to be vaccinated as soon as possible. Canada and Switzerland have begun immunizing children.
“I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents. But right now, I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines to Covax,” Tedros said.
He called the disparity in vaccination rates a “sad reflection on the gross distortion” on access to vaccines.
In January, he said, he warned about the “potential unfolding of a moral catastrophe” over vaccine inequity and that “unfortunately we are now witnessing this play out.”
The excruciatingly slow rollout of vaccines in much of the world leaves huge populations vulnerable. This is now the case in Asia.
Even though the novel coronavirus originated in China and caused a wave of death in the city of Wuhan and the surrounding region in January 2020, much of Asia has until now largely avoided massive outbreaks. Asian nations were praised for quickly taking public health measures to contain the virus’ spread.
But that’s changing and the region is now the epicenter of the pandemic. In the past week, Southeast Asia reported 52% of the new infections globally and 32% of new deaths, according to the latest WHO situation report.
India is where the virus is causing the most suffering as the country’s underfunded healthcare system shudders. With a lack of oxygen, medicines and space in intensive care units, India is struggling to keep the sick alive and deal with the dead.
Earlier this week, dozens of bodies were found floating in the Ganges River in northern India. Officials suspect Covid-19 victims were improperly cremated on the banks of the river. Wood for funeral pyres is scarce and crematoriums are unable to keep up.
In the past week, India reported about 28,280 deaths linked to Covid-19, though the actual death toll is believed to be much higher. New infections are declining, a sign that lockdowns and other measures to stop the virus are working. Still, the number of new infections is very high with more than 343,000 new cases reported Thursday.
“India remains hugely concerning with several states continuing to see a worrying number of cases, hospitalization and deaths,” Tedros said.
The WHO is helping by shipping tents for mobile hospitals, oxygen, masks and medical supplies, Tedros said. Help and aid is flowing in from around the world, though Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government is accused of holding up aid by imposing new restrictions on international charities.
“It’s not only India that has emergency needs,” Tedros said. “Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Egypt are just some of the countries that are dealing with spikes in cases and hospitalizations.”
The situation in Nepal is particularly dire with about half of those tested for Covid-19 resulting positive. Confirmed infections have shot up in the past three weeks to nearly 9,000 new cases a day, according to data tracked by Worldometer.
Nepal is a poor Himalayan nation with about 30 million people and it shares a long and largely open border with India. With hospital beds filling up fast and a lack of oxygen, doctors are asking foreign mountain climbers to share their extra oxygen tanks to help Covid patients. There are reports of crematoriums being overwhelmed in Nepal too.
It’s believed that a new more contagious strain of the virus that emerged in India is responsible for the spike in infections there and elsewhere in Asia. This new strain sees the virus make two key mutations in its spike protein, making it easier for the virus to enter a human cell.
On Monday, a WHO expert said the strain, classified as B.1.617, is a “variant of concern,” a designation that makes it a global health threat similar to three other strains scientists identified in South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom. Scientists believe those more dangerous strains have fueled outbreaks.
The Indian variant has been found in many parts of the world and it is spreading in Europe too. This is giving rise to concerns in the United Kingdom and the European Union – where vaccination drives are well underway – over a new wave of infections, especially if the strain evades immunization provided by vaccines.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said vaccinations will be sped up to curb the Indian variant, which has been found circulating in parts of Britain. Britain has large Indian and Pakistani populations and the U.K. maintains close ties with its former colony.
Most immediately, the more dangerous B.1.617 strain poses tremendous risk for Southeast Asia, where about a quarter of the world’s population lives.
“The human catastrophe that is unfolding in India and Nepal should be a warning to other countries in the region to invest heavily in surge capacity for an emergency response,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, in a statement on Thursday. “The virus is spreading and transcending borders at a frightening speed and will continue to hit the region’s most marginalized populations hardest of all.”
Mishra warned that many Asian nations are not adequately prepared for outbreaks and that “extremely low vaccination rates across South Asia have also left the region highly vulnerable.”
India’s plight is, of course, prompting others to act. Singapore, one of the world’s most successful at combating the virus, is moving into a partial lockdown due to the discovery of new infections.
On Friday, Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency as it fights to contain the virus in advance of the Olympics. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the games, which were canceled last summer because of the pandemic. Japan is struggling to slow infections. China too has begun reporting a few new cases, the first in 20 days from mainland China.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.