WHO Warns of Deadlier Variants Taking World Back to 'Square One' of Pandemic

Failing the pandemic test, as World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus believes the world is, means even countries with high vaccination rates could once again find themselves back where they were in March 2020.

Ghebreyesus has long advocated for high-income countries to help fill inequities in health care by sharing vaccine doses with other countries' most vulnerable populations. Focusing on a country's own people and not the world's population allows for more mutations of the virus to pop up and in a global world, a deadly variant in one place poses a threat to everywhere.

"The more transmission, the more variants will emerge with the potential to be even more dangerous than the Delta variant that is causing such devastation now," Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday. "And the more variants, the higher the likelihood that one of them will evade vaccines and take us all back to square one."

Wealthy nations, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and countries throughout Europe have had success vaccinating more than 50 percent of their populations and some are pretty close to 70 percent, the minimum threshold expected to be necessary for herd immunity. However, countries throughout Africa and the Middle East are struggling to vaccinate even their high-risk populations, such as health care workers and the elderly.

Ghebreyesus called it a "moral outrage" that some countries were talking about the potential for booster shots when others couldn't protect hospital workers. Had vaccines been allocated "more equitably," Ghebreyesus said the pandemic could have been "under control by now."

Mutations are only able to occur if the virus has the chance to spread, which is how the Delta variant was created. Fortunately, vaccines have proven effective against people contracting Delta, although there have been breakthrough cases, and those who do test positive are often not getting seriously ill or dying.

However, experts, like Ghebreyesus, have long warned that not all variants will blaze the same trail. In January, just as vaccines were being rolled out to America's most vulnerable, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, posted on Twitter that a world where the U.S. is vaccinated but others aren't could lead to variants that require vaccines to be updated and all Americans to be vaccinated again.

"It's the nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic," Jha said.

Vaccines have long been considered the key to the door that leads countries out of the pandemic and with nearly 70 percent of Americans vaccinated, places across the United States lifted restrictions on masks and gatherings. In places like America, it's considered the beginning of the end of the pandemic and people have started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Ghebreyesus said those who think the pandemic is over because their country is reopening are "living in a fool's paradise," adding, "none of us is safe until all of us are safe." If a variant was to emerge that evaded the vaccine, it's possible countries with high vaccination rates would have to close down again until a new vaccine could be developed.

More than 191 million people worldwide have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began and while the focus has been on 2020, more deaths have been reported in 2021. Deaths in the second year of the pandemic are more than double the amount the world saw in the first year and the virus has claimed more than 4 million lives.

To prevent more devastating waves of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Ghebreyesus called for the world to work together to vaccinate at least 10 percent of every country's population by September, 40 percent by the end of the year and 70 percent by the middle of next year. If that happens, he believes the pandemic will end.

"At the beginning of my remarks, I said that I am often asked when the pandemic will end. This is everybody's question," Ghebreyesus said. "My answer is equally simple: the pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it. It's in our hands."

Who Director General
The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned more dangerous variants could emerge that evade the COVID-19 vaccine, putting the world back at "square one" of the pandemic. Ghebreyesus speaks during a bilateral meeting with Swiss Interior and Health Minister before signing a BioHub Initiative with a global COVID-19 Pathogen repository in Spiez laboratory on the sideline of the opening of the 74th World Health Assembly at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on May 24. Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP, File