2 new Omicron subvariants behind recent COVID-19 spike in South Africa: WHO

The World Health Organization‘s (WHO) director-general said Wednesday that two Omicron COVID-19 subvariants are behind a recent spike in cases in South Africa.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus said that it is too soon to know if subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 cause more severe symptoms, but they are “another sign the pandemic is not done with us.”

WHO began tracking BA.4 and BA.5 in mid-April. They are in addition to previously discovered subvariants BA.1 and BA.2, the latter of which is now dominant around the world. South Africa reported 2,650 COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, according to WHO, but more than 6,500 new cases on May 1, with its numbers trending upward.

Despite the new variants, Ghebreysus did report that COVID-19 cases continue to decline globally and weekly deaths are at the lowest point since March 2020, when the pandemic first began.

He said though that testing remains critical, with genetic sequencing the reason the two recent subvariants were identified in South Africa as other countries have stopped the practice.

“In many countries, we are essentially blind to how the virus is mutating,” he said.

“We don’t know what is coming next.”

Ghebreysus said the goal remains to vaccinate at least 70 per cent of countries’ populations around the world. While vaccine availability has improved significantly, he said demand is limited by a lack of political commitment, operational capacity problems, financial constraints and misinformation. He urged countries to address vaccine bottlenecks.

He also noted that while vaccine manufacturers are posting record profits, the WHO cannot accept prices that make the treatment available for the rich and not the poor, calling the disparity a “moral failing.”

Meanwhile, Ghebreysus said the health challenges in Ukraine are worsening by the day, especially in the country’s east, where the war has intensified.

WHO has so far identified 186 attacks on health care in Ukraine, he said, while the organization was able to receive “scores of civilians” from Mariupol on Tuesday as the city has faced a weeks-long siege from Russian forces.

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