LONDON – The World Health Organization is encouraging people, including those fully vaccinated, to continue to wear masks due to the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant.
Dr. Mariangela Simao, the WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines, vaccines and pharmaceuticals, said Friday that vaccines themselves shouldn’t make people feel safe, according to a report by CNBC.
“People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves,” she said. “Vaccine alone won’t stop community transmission. People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene ... the physical distance, avoid crowding.”
She added that the precautions are still “extremely important.”
Also at a press briefing Friday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the delta variant, which was first seen in India, is the most transmissible variant identified so far since the pandemic began. It has spread to at least 85 countries, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or physical distancing except where required by law, or business or workplace guidance. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations, or two weeks after the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccination.
Studies show that the available vaccines work against variants like the delta, but there are concerns that viruses can mutate further, causing them to be more contagious or likely to evade protection from inoculations, according to the Associated Press.
The delta variant represents 20% of new infections in the United States, but it is unclear yet if it makes people sicker.
Because of the unknowns, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s World Emergencies Programme, said that people should be following protocols like social distancing and mask-wearing with “much more care,” Forbes reported.
Tedros on Friday said the lack of vaccines in poor countries was exacerbating the delta variant’s transmission. He described a recent meeting he attended of an advisory group established to allocate vaccines.
“They were disappointed because there is no vaccine to allocate,” he said, criticizing rich countries for declining to immediately share shots with the developing world. “If there is no vaccine, what do you share?”
Tedros said the global community was failing and risked repeating the mistakes made during the AIDS crisis decades ago and during the 2009 swine flu pandemic — when vaccines only arrived in poor countries after the outbreak ended.
“It took 10 years (for antiretrovirals) to reach the low income countries after (HIV) was already rampant in high income countries,” he said. “Do we want to repeat the same thing?”
COVAX, the U.N.-backed effort aiming to distribute vaccines to poor countries, has missed several targets to share COVID-19 shots, and its biggest supplier is not expected to export any vaccines until the end of the year. The hundreds of millions of doses promised by countries including Britain, the U.S. and others are not likely to arrive anytime soon.
“We have through COVAX this month zero doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, zero doses of Pfizer vaccine, zero doses of (Johnson and Johnson) vaccine,” acknowledged Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the WHO chief. “Every single one of our suppliers is unable to supply during this period because others are making demands on those products, others who are vaccinating very young populations that are not at risk.”
As border restrictions and other public health measures are loosened across Europe, the U.S. and in other countries with high vaccination rates, WHO officials warned that this could lead to a resurgence of disease.
“The global situation is incredibly fragile,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19. Van Kerkhove said that while transmission is dropping in Europe, there are numerous events — from large sporting events to backyard barbeques — that all have consequences for disease spread.
“The delta variant, the virus, will continue to evolve," Van Kerkhove said. "Right now our public health and social measures work, our vaccines work, our diagnostics work, our therapeutics work. But there may be a time where this virus evolves and these countermeasures don’t.”