Delta COVID-19 surges worsen; WHO challenges push for vaccine booster doses

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that the pandemic is worsening with the Delta (1617.2) variant spreading at a scorching pace, and chided countries and drug companies for pushing for third vaccine booster doses when many countries don't have enough to protect their health workers and other vulnerable groups.

Meanwhile, in promising vaccine supply developments, the WHO said it has licensed two more AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine manufacturing sites—one in Japan and the other in Australia. Also, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, announced today that it has signed purchase agreements with China-based Sinopharm and Sinovac, which will make 110 million doses available to the COVAX program.

Delta surge exposes vaccine inequities

At a briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said global COVID-19 cases rose for the fourth week in a row, with deaths now rising, following a 10-week decline. "The Delta variant is ripping around the world at a scorching pace, driving a new spike in cases and death," he said, noting that the variant has now been detected in 104 countries and will likely soon become the world's dominant strain.

In countries with high vaccination coverage, Delta spread is impacting unprotected people and putting pressure on health systems. But the situation is particularly bad in low vaccine-coverage countries, where the variant is driving catastrophic waves with high numbers of cases and deaths.

He likened the spread to a forest fire that the world needs to battle together to extinguish, with health workers on the frontlines and older people and at-risk groups the most vulnerable to the flames. "The priority now must be to vaccinate those who have received no doses and protection."

Tedros said current data show vaccination offers long lasting immunity against severe disease and death, and he urged Moderna and Pfizer to—instead of focusing on boosters for high coverage countries—go all out to channel vaccine supply to COVAX.

"Tens of millions of vaccine dose donations are starting to come through, but we need more and we need them faster," he said.

Vaccine supply developments

The WHO's emergency use listing of the AstraZeneca production sites in Japan and Australia raise the total making the vaccine to five. "This gives the green light for COVAX to buy vaccines from these additional facilities, and enables countries to expedite their own regulatory approval to import and roll out vaccines," he said.

AstraZeneca has led on licensing the vaccine around the world to more quickly boost vaccine production, Tedros said, adding that the world needs other manufacturers to follow suit.

Regarding Gavi's announcement on the advance purchase agreements with Sinopharm and Sinovac, the companies will begin making 110 million doses immediately to COVAX participants, with options for more doses. The deal with Sinopharm adds 60 million doses between July and October, with an option to buy 60 million more in the fourth quarter of the year and 50 million more in the first half of 2022. The agreement of Sinovac consists of 50 million doses between July and October, with an option for 150 million more in the fourth quarter of 2021 and 180 million more in the first half of 2022.

Seth Berkley, MD, Gavi's chief executive officer, said, "Thanks to this deal, and because these vaccines have already received WHO Emergency Use Listing, we can move to start supplying doses to countries immediately." Gavi's COVAX portfolio now includes 11 vaccines and vaccine candidates.

More global headlines

  • Indonesia's surge continued to worsen, with daily cases passing 40,000 for the first time and reaching a new record level. Social media reports from the country say about 450 people have died while in isolation due to difficulty finding treatment. The United States yesterday announced that it is sending 3 million doses of Moderna vaccine to Indonesia through the COVAX program.

  • In other Asian hot spots, Vietnam reported a new single-day high for cases yesterday, 1,953, with Ho Chi Minh City as the country's epicenter. Thailand today said it will use AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine as the second dose for those who received an initial Sinovac dose, the first country to do so and amid questions about long-term protection of two Sinovac doses, according to Reuters. Elsewhere, cases are surging in Myanmar, which reported record cases and deaths and shortages of oxygen supplies.

  • Other countries reporting new record highs include Bangladesh, as well as Cuba, where the government's handling of the pandemic partly fueled unprecedented public protests over the weekend.

  • In Europe, cases in the Netherlands have risen to its highest of year and the country's prime minister apologized for the nation reopening too quickly, and in the United Kingdom, government officials said today that England will move to its final stage of easing restrictions on Jul 19, even though its current surge isn't expected peak before the middle of August, according to the BBC. Officials said vaccination coverage would protect health systems from becoming overwhelmed and that some guidance will remain, such as wearing face coverings in some public places.

  • A report today from three United Nations organizations said world hunger spiked dramatically in 2020, likely due to the impacts of the pandemic. Africa was the hardest hit part of the world, and the groups estimated that as many as 811 million people were undernourished last year. They said critical efforts are needed to fulfill an earlier pledge to end world hunger by 2030.

  • The global total today climbed to 186,782,156 cases, with at least 4,030,857 deaths, according to the New York Times.

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