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WHO warns Omicron behind COVID surge across Eastern Mediterranean

A new COVID-19 variant: Omicron (B.1.1.529) is displayed on a screen on 29 November 2021 [Hakan Nural/Anadolu Agency]
A new COVID-19 variant: Omicron (B.1.1.529) is displayed on a screen on 29 November 2021 [Hakan Nural/Anadolu Agency]

A "shocking increase" of COVID-19 cases across the Eastern Mediterranean region has likely been caused by the Omicron variant, according to the World Health Organisation.

Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said at a press briefing in Cairo on Thursday, "While Omicron appears to cause less severe disease compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, this certainly does not mean it should be underestimated, as it continues to lead to hospitalisation and deaths."

Despite a 13 per cent decrease in COVID-19 related deaths, cases in the region surged by 89 per cent in the first week of January.

Mandhari, who oversees 22 countries in the region, said that Afghanistan, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen had vaccinated less than 10 per cent of their populations. This was despite the fact that these six countries have the capacity to vaccinate and protect 40 per cent of their populations. The regional director blamed the failure on a "lack of political commitment at the highest levels".

A total of 15 countries in the region have reported Omicron cases. This includes Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE.

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Factors, including vaccine equality, vaccine hesitancy and low levels of compliance with public health measures have further exacerbated the number of cases.

Mandhari warned that preparations must now take place for "the worst case scenario".  The WHO has recommended that countries with reported Omicron cases should now work to increase levels of rapid diagnostic testing.

Relatedly, on Monday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip warned of the spread of Omicron amid a shortage of medical equipment.

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