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WHO says Omicron worry shows need for pandemic pact

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says Omicron shows COVID-19 is 'not done with us'. Photo: AP
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The World Health Organisation is pushing for an international accord to help prevent and fight future pandemics after the emergence of the worrying new Omicron COVID-19 variant.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says many uncertainties remain about just how transmissible and severe infection by the highly mutated Omicron might be.

Dr Tedros joined leaders like outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera for a long-planned and largely virtual special session of the UN health agency’s member states at the World Health Assembly.

The gathering is aimed at devising a global action plan toward preventing, preparing and responding to future pandemics.

“The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” said Dr Tedros, calling for a “legally binding” agreement that wasn’t mentioned in a draft text seeking consensus on the way forward.

“Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics.

“Our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” he said, saying that South Africa and Botswana – where the new variant was detected in southern Africa – should be praised and not “penalised” for their work.

That was an allusion to restrictions announced by many countries on air travel to and from the region.

Dr Tedros said WHO scientists and others around the world were working urgently to decipher the threat posed by the new variant.

“We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more risk of infections, or more risk of evading vaccines,” he said.

The world should now be “wide awake” to the threat of the coronavirus, “but Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it’s not done with us,” he added.

A draft resolution set to be adopted by the World Health Assembly stops short of calling for work toward specifically establishing a “pandemic treaty” or “legally binding instrument” sought by some, which could beef up the international response when – not if – a new pandemic erupts.

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose 16-year tenure is likely to end next week, called for “reliable financing” for WHO and increased contributions to the UN agency from its member states – while alluding to the EU position in favour of a binding agreement.

“The catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of health and the economy ought to be a lesson to us,” she said by video message.

“Viruses know no national borders. That’s precisely why we should lay down measures to be taken to improve prevention, early detection, and response in internationally binding fashion.”

-AP