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Regional Director’s statement on COVID-19 in WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region [EN/AR]

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7 July 2021 -- In the Eastern Mediterranean Region today, cases of COVID-19 are on the rise after 2 months of steady decline, and we are once again seeing countries struggling to contain infection and protect their populations, while at the same time keeping their borders open and their economies active.

As we continue into the summer months, we are concerned about another spike in cases due to variants of concern and increased international travel, combined with low protection of people due to limited vaccination uptake and inadequate adherence to prevention measures.

Despite all efforts, we are seeing a higher weekly average of new cases and deaths across the Region compared to the same time last year. This is due to several factors.

Firstly, the Delta variant has been detected in at least 98 countries around the world, including 13 countries in our Region, and it is spreading quickly regardless of vaccination coverage. It is fueling current surges in cases and deaths. The Delta variant seems to be spreading faster than the original strain.

The rapid spread of the Delta variant is contributing to an increase in disease transmission both globally and in our Region. Countries should prepare by strengthening surveillance and detection, social measures, and ensuring health systems are able to cope with increasing numbers of moderate and severe cases.

We are working to obtain a better understanding of COVID-19 variants, but we cannot do this without enough in-depth information about how the virus circulates. We encourage all countries to enhance sequencing capacity and data sharing. The more we know about the virus and the impact of its different strains, the better we can adapt our response to defeat it. WHO, of course, is willing to play its role in supporting data collection, analysis, sharing and management.

Secondly, vaccines are still not being distributed fairly and equitably, giving COVID-19 an opportunity to continue spreading and mutating. We are working hard to make sure that all countries in our Region and beyond have access to enough vaccines so that they can protect their most vulnerable populations.

More than 500 million doses are still needed to vaccinate at least 40% of the population of every country in the Eastern Mediterranean Region by the end of the year. We are far, far behind from reaching this goal. For this reason, all countries need to monitor the vaccine rollout and share their experiences, so that we can take action to address challenges related to vaccine supply and vaccine hesitancy.

The situation is even more critical in a number of countries facing humanitarian emergencies, where people are already living under extremely challenges conditions, and yet need to be protected as equally as anyone else.

We need higher income countries to finance the procurement of vaccines through the COVAX Facility, and to share vaccines with lower income countries.

And finally, countries in the Region are not strictly and consistently applying the public health and social measures, with poor adherence among the public.

How can we, as individuals, protect ourselves? Vaccinated people need to continue adhering to mask use, physical distancing, and other measures, and those who have not yet been vaccinated should do so as soon as they can, to add an extra layer of protection against COVID-19 and its variants, including Delta.

More than 18 months into the pandemic, we also need to start thinking about the medium- and long-term actions to be taken to make sure we never find ourselves this vulnerable and exposed again: national capacities need to be strengthened across disease surveillance, laboratory science, clinical management, community engagement, among other areas. Importantly, we need to advance genome sequencing and oxygen production at national level and to build regional capacities for vaccine production. WHO is currently giving high priority to these issues.

All of this requires working together to benefit from our experiences and maximizing the use of our collective resources. Our Region is rich with human resources, knowledge, and research capacities.

Despite the lessons learnt throughout the pandemic -- that COVID-19 can only be beaten through cooperation, solidarity, and coordination among countries and communities alike -- we are now seeing a very disturbing turn of events, with the politicization of the vaccine rollouts becoming even more evident.

It is time to put politics aside for the good of humanity. We will not succeed until everyone is protected -- regardless of age, gender, race, geographical location, or political affiliation. We are in this together, and we can only come out of this together.