As four COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ continue to circulate and dominate global epidemiology, it’s highly likely that new ones will emerge and start to spread across the world and those could be both more dangerous and hard to contain, the World Health Organization’s emergency committee warned Thursday.


‘The Committee unanimously agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic still constitutes an extraordinary event that continues to adversely affect the health of populations around the world, poses a risk of international spread and interference with international traffic, and requires a coordinated international response.’

— World Health Organization emergency committee

In a statement published after a Wednesday meeting, the committee said that despite national, regional and global efforts to end the crisis, the pandemic “is nowhere near finished,” even if it is being described as such in some parts of the world. It reiterated the WHO’s long stance that inequitable access to vaccine supply is putting everyone at risk.

Read now: U.S. COVID-19 cases more than double in two weeks as delta variant spreads fast, and WHO warns ‘pandemic nowhere near finished’

The agency has been recommending that governments use an initial batch of vaccines to inoculate their most vulnerable populations, from front line workers to healthcare workers to the elderly and immunocompromised. They should then send excess supply to their neighbors to ensure they can vaccinate the same groups, before gradually working down age groups until everyone has access to shots.

Experts have warned that allowing the virus to spread in regions with low vaccination rates could cause a new variant to emerge that will prove resistant to the vaccines that have received emergency use authorization, sending scientists back to the drawing board.

Related: WHO head slams countries for ordering millions of COVID booster shots, when much of the world has not even vaccinated the most vulnerable

That advice has been roundly ignored by wealthier countries, including the U.S., which have pushed to inoculate their own citizens before sharing supply with others. While it’s understandable that governments would seek to protect their own people first, it’s not the right way to end the pandemic, according to the WHO.

“Countries with limited access to vaccines are experiencing new waves of infections, seeing erosion of public trust and growing resistance to PHSM (public health and safety measures), growing economic hardship, and, in some instances, increasing social unrest.”

South Africa and Cuba have been rocked this week by mass protests.

The committee also expressed concern about the risk of new zoonotic diseases emerging while the world is still coping with COVID-19 and called on greater support for its Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, along with “more flexible and predictable funding” to support its role in the global pandemic response.

The statement called for greater sharing of vaccine supply, for expanding production capacity on the ground in low- and middle-income countries, including by waiving IP rights and leveraging technology transfer, and asked richer countries to step up and offer needed funding to poorer ones.

It also called for “updated” means of documenting the COVID status of travelers, including those coming from regions with less access to vaccines. It called on governments to recognize all of the vaccines that the WHO has granted emergency use listing, in the context of international travel.

Governments must continue to use PHSM to reduce transmission, from hand washing to face-mask wearing and social distancing, said the letter. And they must continue to track the virus and its variants, share data with other countries and improve access to safe and recommended therapeutics and treatments, including oxygen.

“Achieve the WHO call to action to have at least 10% of all countries’ populations vaccinated by September 2021,” said the statement.

Videos show thousands of Cubans protesting food and medicine shortages in a rare show of anti-government dissent. WSJ’s José de Córdoba explains how an uptick in Covid-19 cases and a slow vaccine rollout are adding to the island’s economic crisis. Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

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