‘It isn’t over’: WHO warns against easing COVID curbs too soon

Warning by top WHO expert against premature rush back to normality comes amid growing concerns over spread of Delta variant of coronavirus.

The UK government is expected to lift most COVID-19 restrictions in the country in two weeks [File: Niklas Halle'n/AFP]
Correction7 Jul 2021
A previous version of this story said that the Delta variant of the coronavirus was first detected in India in April 2021. That was incorrect. It was first detected in October 2020.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned governments around the world against easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon, saying countries that did so risked paying a heavy price for rushing back to normality.

Speaking at a press briefing on Monday, the UN health agency’s top emergency expert Mike Ryan said a new wave of infections could be round the corner and noted that for much of the world, the pandemic was just getting started.

“All of the countries of the Americas, we still have nearly one million cases a week,” he said. “And the same in Europe…with half a million cases a week. It’s not like this thing has gone away,” Ryan added. “It isn’t over.”

Last week, the WHO’s Africa director had warned that “the speed and scale” of the continent’s third wave “is like nothing we’ve seen before”.

“COVID-19 cases are doubling every three weeks, compared to every four weeks at the start of the second wave,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti told a briefing on Thursday.

In Russia, meanwhile, coronavirus deaths hit another daily record on Tuesday, with authorities reporting 737 more fatalities. The daily tally of confirmed infections has more than doubled in the past month, soaring from about 9,000 in early June to more than 23,000 this week.

The warnings come amid renewed concerns over the new coronavirus Delta variant, first detected in India in October 2020. The variant, which is considered to be the most transmissible variant yet, has now spread to nearly 100 countries worldwide.

Experts say more than 80 percent of a country’s population would need to be inoculated in order to contain it – a challenging target even for nations with advanced vaccination programmes. The variant is now responsible for more than 90 percent of all new infections in the United Kingdom and about 30 percent in the United States.

Lab tests have shown it is more resistant to vaccines compared with other forms of coronavirus. However, there is evidence that available jabs retain important effectiveness against it after two doses.

Back to normality

On the same day the WHO issued its warning, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that most COVID-19 restrictions in the country will be lifted in two weeks.

“If we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by school holidays, then we should ask ourselves, when will we be able to return to normal,” Johnson told reporters on Monday.

The prime minister acknowledged there will be more infections, but people need to learn to live with the virus.

However, the British Medical Association (BMA) has expressed concerns about removing all coronavirus-related curbs on July 19 given the surge in the Delta variant and a 74 percent increase in infections in the last week alone.

Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chair, told Sunrise Radio on Sunday the government should continue with “sensible targeted coronavirus measures” and act on “data not dates” when making their decisions in order to protect people’s lives.

Germany, meanwhile, has begun easing restrictions, including softer quarantine rules, on travellers from India, Nepal, Portugal, Russia and the UK after the country’s public health institute declared these five nations are no longer areas of “variant of concern”.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany should lift all remaining coronavirus-linked social and economic curbs as soon as everyone has been offered a vaccine.

About 56.5 percent of people in Germany have received at least one dose and almost 39 percent are fully vaccinated, according to health ministry data.

“When everyone in Germany has received a vaccine offer, there is no longer a legal or political justification for any kind of restriction,” Maas told the Suddeutsche Zeitung. That should occur sometime during August, he said.

In Canada, authorities on Monday began loosening pandemic restrictions on travel to and from the United States, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying that plans to totally reopen the border would be announced in the next few weeks.

“Remember last summer when we thought everything was good, we got relaxed and we arrived in September, October and ended up in huge trouble,” said WHO’s top adviser Ryan.

“I think that is where we are going again, but with a much more transmissible variant this time around,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies