The World Health Organization admonished countries not to relax their guard against the coronavirus pandemic, just because the Omicron variant tends not to cause hospitalizations and deaths as often as earlier variants did.
“We must not allow this virus a free ride, or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, said Wednesday at a news conference in Geneva.
Since Omicron was first detected in late November, it raced across the planet, outpacing even some of the best tracking efforts. The daily average for new, known global cases has set records every day since the start of the year, as much of the world remains unvaccinated. Over the past week, a staggering average of 2.6 million new cases a day has been reported and the world surpassed 300 million known cases, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Those figures are surely an undercount, given lack of access to testing and that the results of home tests often are not always reported officially. In addition, some public health experts — like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert — are encouraging less of an emphasis on case counts and more focus on hospitalization numbers.
“Let’s be clear: While Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” Dr. Tedros said. Referring to the pandemic’s recent global toll, he said, “Almost 50,000 deaths a week is 50,000 deaths too many. Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths.”
In some countries, the leap in new cases has prompted new curfews, lockdowns and restrictions, as well as discussions about making vaccinations and booster shots mandatory. But many more countries have not significantly changed course, and some are finding that new virus control measures cannot overcome stiff political opposition.
The French government said on Wednesday that it would keep the country open despite record-shattering virus cases, growing public frustration over testing protocols in schools and the threat of strikes by teachers over Covid safety.
The new coalition government in Germany postponed a parliamentary debate on a proposed national vaccine mandate, after large demonstrations in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Magdeburg and rallies in many other cities against pandemic measures imposed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
Leaders in India have been offering mixed messages holding packed political rallies at the same time that they order curfews and business closures. Australia recently relaxed its isolation rules to reduce labor shortages and strain on testing facilities.
And in the United States, a group of health experts who advised President Biden’s transition team published a series of articles last week calling on the White House to reset its response to Covid in a way that would acknowledge the “new normal” of living with the virus indefinitely.
Worldwide, though, about 72 percent of shots that have gone into arms have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. Only 1 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.
“A big part of the problem is we’ve made it twice as hard, or three times as hard, for low- income countries, many of them, to be able to achieve high coverage,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior W.H.O. adviser, said at the news conference.
Dr. Aylward said wealthy nations had been slow and stingy in sharing vaccines and other vital supplies with the rest of the world. “What we did share was a lot of misinformation,” he said.