WHO laments 500,000 Covid-19 death toll since Omicron

Covid-19 has killed more than 5.7 million people since it emerged in China in December 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - The World Health Organisation lamented on Tuesday (Feb 8) that half a million Covid-19 deaths had been recorded since the Omicron variant was discovered, calling the toll "beyond tragic".

WHO incident manager Abdi Mahamud said 130 million cases and 500,000 deaths had been recorded globally since Omicron was declared a variant of concern in late November last year.

It has since rapidly overtaken Delta as the world's dominant Covid-19 variant because it is more transmissible, though it appears to cause less severe illness.

"In the age of effective vaccines, half a million people dying, it's really something," Dr Mahamud told a live interaction on the WHO's social media channels.

"While everyone was saying Omicron is milder, (they) missed the point that half a million people have died since this was detected.

"It's beyond tragic."

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, said the sheer number of Omicron cases was "astounding", while the true number of cases and deaths would be much higher than just those known about.

"It makes the previous peaks look almost flat," she said.

"We're still in the middle of this pandemic. I hope we're getting closer to the end of it," she said. "Many countries have not passed their peak of Omicron yet."

Dr Van Kerkhove said she was extremely concerned that the numbers of deaths had increased for several weeks in a row.

"This virus continues to be dangerous," she said.

The WHO is tracking four sub-lineages of Omicron. While the BA.1 sub-strain was dominant, BA.2 is more transmissible and is expected to account for an increasing share of Omicron cases.

Dr Van Kerkhove said there was no indication thus far to suggest that BA.2 resulted in more severe Covid-19 disease than BA.1, but stressed that it was still "very early days" in evidence gathering.

Dr Mahamud said it was as yet unknown whether someone could be infected with both BA.1 and BA.2 at the same time.

In their weekly Covid-19 epidemiological update issued later on Tuesday, the WHO said nearly 68,000 new deaths were reported last week – up 7 per cent compared with the previous week.  

Meanwhile, the number of new weekly Covid-19 cases decreased by 17 per cent to nearly 19.3 million.

The WHO’s Europe region accounted for 58 per cent of new confirmed cases last week, and 35 per cent of new deaths. The Americas made up 23 per cent of new cases and 44 per cent of new deaths.  

The pandemic is currently “characterised by the continued rapid global spread of the Omicron variant”, the report said, with the variant now detected “in almost all countries”.  

The WHO said Omicron accounted for 96.7 per cent of samples collected in the last 30 days that have been sequenced and uploaded to the Gisaid global science initiative. Delta now makes up just 3.3 per cent.  

The report said limited data was available for the efficacy of vaccines against Omicron. 

“However, available estimates show reduced protection of the primary series Covid-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant for all outcomes (severe disease, symptomatic disease, and infection) than has been observed previously for other variants of concern,” it said.  

But it added that booster jabs “substantially” improve efficacy.  Covid-19 has killed more than 5.7 million people since it emerged in China in December 2019, according to the report, while over 392 million cases have been recorded.  

Nearly 10.25 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally.

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