There is a “very worrying increase” in COVID-19 deaths around the world and preventing transmission of the virus is still paramount, the head of the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

Addressing a webinar, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last Sunday marked two years since a public health emergency of international concern – the highest level of alarm under international law – was declared over the spread of COVID-19.

At the time, there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths reported outside China, he said.

“Two years later, more than 370 million cases have been reported and more than 5.6 million deaths – and we know these numbers are an underestimate,” said Tedros.

He said “almost 90 million cases have been reported to WHO – more than were reported in the whole of 2020” since omicron was first identified just 10 weeks ago.

“We are now starting to see a very worrying increase in deaths in most regions of the world,” said Tedros.

Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead, said over 22 million cases were reported to the WHO in the past seven days, driven mainly by omicron.

Still need to prevent transmission

“We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines, and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary,” said Tedros.

He warned that “nothing could be further from the truth,” as more transmission means more deaths.

The WHO is not calling for any country to return to the “so-called lockdowns,” but is urging all countries to offer protection using every tool, not vaccines alone, he added.

“It’s premature for any country to either surrender or declare victory,” said Tedros.

“This virus is dangerous, and it continues to evolve before our very eyes. WHO is currently tracking four sub-lineages of the omicron variant of concern, including BA.2.”

The WHO wants countries to continue testing, surveillance and sequencing because the virus will continue to evolve, he explained.

“We can’t fight this virus if we don’t know what it’s doing,” said Tedros, adding that the world “must continue to work to ensure all people have access to vaccines.”

Vaccines may also need to evolve as variants of the virus could continue to escape neutralizing antibodies induced by vaccines against prior strains, he said.

In addition, the reservoir of beta coronaviruses is significant, and new crossovers to humans are likely, Tedros added.

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