The Omicron variant has been detected in more than 70 nations, including Britain, Denmark, and Norway, and accounts for an increasing number of new Covid-19 cases worldwide.
While researchers say more data is needed, preliminary studies suggest the variant is more contagious than other mutations and better at evading immune defenses from previous infections and vaccines. However, the CDC says booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide substantial protection against Omicron, as reported by The New York Times.
This comes as vaccinations rates remain strikingly uneven worldwide. According to Our World in Data, more than 46% of the world population has been fully vaccinated with two doses, though just 7.2% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. 8.51 billion doses have been administered globally.
The WHO says Omicron is now the most dominant variant in South Africa, where it was first detected, and has caused a surge in new cases, as reported by CNBC. Neighboring countries also report case spikes, with rates increasing 1,361% in Zimbabwe, 1,207% in Mozambique, and 681% in Namibia.
While one billion doses of vaccines are expected to arrive across Africa in the coming months, other barriers, such as underfunded health systems and vaccine hesitancy, have prevented the region from achieving high vaccination rates, according to The Guardian. In Nigeria, for example, the health system lacks basic supplies such as cotton swabs, and unreliable power supply requires pharmaceutical refrigerators to run on expensive fuel generators. Many others can’t afford to lose wages to take time off to get vaccinated.
In the U.K., where 70% of the population has been vaccinated, infections from the Omicron variant are doubling every few days, according to NPR. Early data shows that one person infected with the variant will spread it to two to four other people—making the variant twice as contagious as Delta. Experts believe Omicron is likely to become the dominant variant in Scotland, Denmark and other European countries, according to The Washington Post.
The Omicron variant has now been detected in Romania, where experts fear the potential for a fifth Covid-19 wave amid low vaccination rates, according to Al Jazeera. The country’s hospitals are still under pressure from the recent fourth wave in October and November, which resulted in the world’s highest death rate from Covid-19. Romania has the EU’s second-worst vaccination rate at 39% and the most poorly ranked health system.
Los Angeles Times reports South Korea is experiencing the worst coronavirus wave since the pandemic began averaging nearly 6,000 new cases a day after the government relaxed public health measures last month, allowing people to gather in larger groups, extend indoor-dining hours, and fully re-open schools. Severe cases and deaths have soared among those aged 60 and up.
In Indonesia, the recent eruption of Mount Semeru has health experts concerned that exposure to volcanic ash and sheltering in communal halls will increase COVID-19 infections, as reported by Al Jazeera.
Papua New Guinea, where less than 5% of the adult population is vaccinated, is experiencing a surge in Delta cases, creating concerns among epidemiologists that a new variant could emerge, according to The Guardian. The country, which has poor access to sanitation and clean water, is also dealing with an increase in malaria, tuberculosis, and poor maternal and infant outcomes.
In Latin America, hunger rates are at a 15-year high while the pandemic has severely reduced people’s incomes, according to ABC News. In Peru, for example, a country with the world’s worst death rate per capita due to Covid-19, the rate of poverty increased by 10% in 2020, affecting one-third of the population. This comes as hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased by 2% since 2019, affecting nearly 60 million people, according to a recent report by the United Nations.
Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, announced that 100% of its adult population—12.3 million people—has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, as reported by the Washington Post. The Omicron variant poses a threat as community spread continues in the city, though at a much lower rate than before.
A staggering 1 in 100 older Americans has died from the virus compared to 1 in 1400 younger Americans. The most recent 100,000 deaths have occurred in the past 11 weeks, suggesting that the pace of deaths from Covid-19 is accelerating.
The Omicron variant has been detected in 34 states and Washington, D.C., according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, the Delta variant is still overwhelming parts of the country, especially the Northeast and Midwest, as reported by PBS Newshour. Last week, Washington State reported a 10% rise in Covid cases with Omicron mutations over a two-day period, according to The New York Times.
Boston.com reports that Maine and New Hampshire governors will call in dozens of National Guard troops to provide non-clinical support at local hospitals as both states register record-high numbers of hospitalizations due to the Delta variant. While most of these hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, Vermont, where 75% of people have taken the jab, has also reported a record number of new cases and hospitalizations, suggesting a higher threshold is needed for herd immunity, PBS Newshour reports.
NPR reports hospitals in Colorado are full of unvaccinated Covid patients and on the verge of collapse, seeding anger among patients who need care for other reasons and are unable to access hospital services.
The North Coast Journal reports that hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala who speak Indigenous (non-Spanish) languages have struggled to access information needed to stay healthy during the pandemic. In California, many are immigrant farmworkers who live in poverty with less access to health care. This, combined with language barriers, has contributed to the spread of misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. The wide range of Indigenous languages—in California, people speak 23 different Indigenous languages from Mexico and 24 from Guatemala—make it difficult for health care workers to communicate important information.
Younger Latinos in California are dying of Covid-19 at much higher rates than their white and Asian counterparts, according to the LA Times. Latinos ages 20 to 54 have died from COVID-19 at a rate more than eight times higher than white people in the same age group, according to a study by USC’s Department of Preventive Medicine. Collectively, Latinos in California have lost about 70,000 years of potential life to COVID-19.
Researchers believe younger Latinos have been more vulnerable to Covid-19 for several socio-economic reasons and health factors: Latinos are more likely to live in overcrowded and multigenerational homes, have poor access to healthcare, work in essential industries, and have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity — conditions associated with severe cases of COVID-19. Latinos have the lowest vaccination rate of any demographic statewide, with younger Latinos particularly lagging, due to misinformation on social media and inflexible work schedules that leave little time for an appointment.
Pfizer has confirmed that its Covid pill, Paxlovid, helps prevent severe disease, including against the Omicron variant, as reported by The New York Times. The drug has shown that it can reduce hospitalization risk by 89% if taken three days before symptoms present. If authorized by the FDA, Americans could access the pill within weeks.
Meanwhile, a survey of over 1,700 Americans by the RAND Corporation found that two-thirds of respondents agreed the United States should send extra vaccines to other countries and that not doing so puts the country at risk.
Direct Relief’s Response
Since the pandemic’s start last year, Direct Relief has delivered more than 48,000 medical aid shipments, including more than 10 million Covid-19 vaccine doses and more than 200 million pieces of personal protective equipment to 56 U.S. states and territories 112 countries.