WASHINGTON - The world is at risk of losing ground in the fight against Covid-19 because of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, but vaccines remain the most effective weapon against it, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference that health systems in many countries were now being overwhelmed.
He said on Friday (July 30): “Hard-won gains are in jeopardy or being lost.”
WHO’s top emergency expert Mike Ryan noted that the fight had become tougher, emphasising nonetheless that vaccines remained the most potent defence against the disease. He said: “We are fighting the same virus but a virus that has become fitter.”
The vaccines that are currently approved by the WHO all provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisation from all the variants, including the Delta variant, he added.
The dire warnings from the WHO officials came as the United States adopted a tough new approach to boost the flagging vaccination rate amid rising case numbers.
Data has also shown that those vaccinated can be hit by “breakthrough” infections which, while not severe, can be spread to others.
In one cluster of infections in Massachusetts, three-quarters of those affected had been fully vaccinated.
“Acknowledge the war has changed,” the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in an internal briefing which was reported by the Washington Post.
It recommended several tougher measures, including making vaccination mandatory for healthcare professionals, and a return to universal wearing of masks over the mouth and nose.
The Delta variant is as transmissible as chickenpox, the CDC said, recommending that even those who are fully vaccinated should wear masks in indoor settings in places with high transmission rates.
“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raise concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus,” CDC head Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
But unvaccinated people are still ten times more likely than those vaccinated to become seriously ill or die. Most of the new cases in the US are in states with relatively low levels of vaccination.
In Provincetown, Massachusetts, case “breakthrough infections occurred, but vaccines were still highly effective, saved lives,” the dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, Dr Peter Hotez, tweeted.
In Asia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have posted record Covid-19 infections driven by Delta. The variant has also led to a spike in cases in Singapore.
The Philippines has announced a plan to put Manila in lockdown for two weeks while, in Australia, troops will be deployed from Monday to help patrol Sydney, which is gripped by a crisis caused by Delta.
“Infections are broadening. The situation is extremely severe,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said, warning that infections were still to peak.
But Myanmar is the country deepest in crisis. This week, its seven-day rolling per capita death rate reached 6.29 deaths per one million, the Associated Press reported – more than twice as high as the per capita death rate in India at the peak of its Covid-19 crisis in May.