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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Explained: Why is WHO warning countries against easing Covid-19 curbs?

Countries such as England and the US have lifted almost all of the Covid-19 measures in a rush to return to normalcy despite the rising number of cases with the Delta variant. However, it is the countries with low vaccination rates that are at a greater risk.

Written by Komal Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
July 8, 2021 11:02:37 am
Yulisa Echeverría, 23, takes a selfie as she and family wait at Bushwick Inlet Park in Brooklyn on Sunday, July 4, 2021, to watch fireworks. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)

In view of the rapidly spreading Delta variant of coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned countries against the premature lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, and urged them to exercise extreme caution while reopening economies. “We would ask governments at this moment not to lose the gains you’ve made,” said WHO emergencies programme head Michael Ryan in Geneva Wednesday.

During a press briefing Monday, he had stressed on the fact that the pandemic is not over yet and said: “Remember last summer when we thought everything was good? We got relaxed and we arrived in September-October and ended up in huge trouble.” He added: “I think that is where we are going again, but with a much more transmissible variant (Delta variant) this time around.”

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Concerns over the US and the UK reopening their economies

The WHO warning comes at the time when England is set to lift almost all its Covid-19 restrictions, including that of wearing face masks and maintaining social distance. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a news conference Monday said people must “learn to live with the virus” and “exercise judgement”.

This is despite the recent surge in Covid-19 cases in the country. On Wednesday, England recorded 32,548 fresh cases of Covid-19, the first time since January that the number has surpassed 30,000. According to Public Health England, Delta variant accounts for 90 per cent of the new Covid-19 cases in the country.

A dealer distributes cards to gamblers during the opening night of Resorts World Las Vegas in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the US, the Delta variant now accounts for 51.7 per cent of all new Covid-19 cases, becoming the dominant variant in the country, according to latest estimates by CDC. This comes just two days after President Joe Biden announced in his address to the nation on the American independence day, that the country is close to a victory over the Covid-19 pandemic.

But public health experts fear Biden may have declared independence from the pandemic too soon given the vast disparities in vaccination levels of certain areas. The country is now almost fully reopened though only 47 per cent of its population has been fully inoculated.

Despite the fast spread of the Delta variant—notably in children and young people—the CDC has so far refused to follow the WHO in encouraging vaccinated Americans to wear masks, while the White House has left decisions on new pandemic restrictions to individual states.

What makes the Delta Virus a cause of worry?

The Delta variant, which drove the deadly second wave of Covid-19 infections in India, has by now spread to over 98 countries worldwide. It was first detected in India in October 2020 and is now emerging as the dominant variant in several countries including Fiji, Bangladesh, Australia, Vietnam, Russia apart from the US and UK.

The variant is said the be the most transmissible so far. According to WHO, it is 55 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which itself was around 50 per cent more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain.

This means in absence of control measures such as vaccination, a person having the delta variant can infect five or more people on average. This estimated number is called the R number, which was only two or three in case of the original strain.

The variant is driving new waves of Covid-19 infections in countries that had already contained the virus, pushing parts of Europe back into lockdown and causing a surge in cases in the UK and Israel.

It wreaked havoc in Australia, which was being widely seen as a success story, having returned to normalcy after it managed to contain the spread of the virus. Around 18 million Australians, or around 70 per cent of the population, have now been put under some form COVID-related restrictions in an attempt to stop the spread of this highly contagious variant. Australia’s delayed vaccination rollout is one of the reasons behind its new wave of infections.

How effective is vaccination against the Delta variant?

In an interview this month, WHO’s Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan explained that a full course of vaccination reduces chances of developing severe disease, hospitalisation and death due to the Delta variant. “None of the vaccines that we have currently are 100 per cent protective. So this is why even if you’re vaccinated, you can get the infection, but the chances are you will get very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and that the chances of getting seriously ill are really, really low,” she said.

This is also why the WHO has warned countries, especially those with low vaccination rates, against the premature reopening of the economies. “Countries opening up who have very low levels of vaccination coverage in the presence of variants is a real toxic mixture for your hospitals filling up again. And this is something that must absolutely be avoided,” Ryan said.

“I have urged leaders across the world to work together to ensure that by this time next year, 70 per cent of all people in every country are vaccinated,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, highlighting that this was the best way to contain the pandemic and prevent further variants from getting the ‘upper hand’.

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