Omicron variant is spreading at unprecedented rate, WHO chief says

World cannot vaccinate or lock down its way out of pandemic, Dr Mike Ryan says

The Omicron variant first detected in South Africa last month has now been reported by 77 countries and is probably present in most worldwide, but should not be dismissed as "mild", World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” the WHO director general told an online briefing on Tuesday.

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

Vaccine booster shots can play a role in curbing the spread of Covid-19 as long as people most in need of protection also get access to jabs, he also said.

Also on Tuesday, global public health expert Dr Mike Ryan of the WHO said that the world cannot vaccinate or lock down its way out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme said continued public health measures were required as the Omicron variant would put pressure on health services, even if it was a milder disease.

Speaking at an online webinar organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dr Ryan said people have been looking for “silver bullets” or “unicorns” to end the pandemic, but they “don’t exist”.

He said there needed to be a “multi-pronged” approach, in which consistent advice is delivered to the public.

“What has worked during this pandemic is layered, risk-orientated, evidence-based, consistent advice to people. That’s the only way out of it. We can’t vaccinate our way out of this. We can’t lock down our way out of this,” he said.

Dr Ryan said some countries have moved away from the basic health measures such as social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing.

“Even if Omicron turns out to be a milder disease on an individual basis, if we generate millions and millions and millions of cases, we will fill the hospitals up. We will fill the ICUs up,” he said.

“We need to refocus on public health and social measures, vaccinate the unvaccinated. We need to make sure hospitals are ready.”

Boosters should be administered to specific groups within the population, particularly older persons and people with underlying conditions.

However, he said it was important to do both boosters and getting those who are unvaccinated vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“That is the best use of the vaccine,” he added.

Equitable access

On the issue of equitable access for vaccines, Dr Ryan spoke about the Trips (Trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver, which would temporarily waive patent rights to facilitate more widespread manufacturing worldwide.

He said waiving technology rights “doesn’t necessarily make vaccines”, but said it must be viewed as a “global, strategic effort”.

The WHO’s target was to have 40 per cent of the world vaccinated by the end of this year, but it is way off that, he said.

“If a fire brigade goes to a fire today, it doesn’t distribute water on the basis of who can pay. It distributes that water based on whose house is burning, whose house is most at risk. We need a system that is much more coherent and we need technology transfer,” he said.

Speaking in response to arguments that waiving the rights would have a negative impact on vaccine innovation in the future, Dr Ryan said it was public money that drove most of the investment.

“There are extraordinary circumstances in which we really have to look at patents and intellectual property. When the patent for seatbelts was shared, Volvo didn’t go out of business,” he added. Additional reporting: Reuters

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times