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Omicron highlights urgency of vaccine equality, including in conflict zones: ICRC

The emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant has highlighted a global need for COVID-19 vaccine equality, especially in conflict zones, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned, as countries grapple with the new strain.

Omicron has gained a foothold in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Europe and has reached seven of the nine provinces of South Africa, where it was first identified. Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the variant out.

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Much remains unknown about Omicron, which has been detected in more than two dozen countries, but Esperanza Martinez, the head of the COVID-19 Crisis Management Team at the ICRC, said the variant highlights how vulnerable all nations are when large parts of the world aren’t vaccinated.

“Vaccinating the tens of millions of people living in conflict zones and other hard-to-reach areas is an absolute necessity if we are to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Martinez in a statement.

“Only a small sliver of vaccines has so far reached conflict zones, where families and entire communities often live without access to basic health care services.”

The ICRC estimates that more than 100 million people now live in areas under full or fluid control of non-state armed groups, often leaving communities out of reach of vaccination campaigns run by ministries of health.

“How do we reach them?,” asked Martinez. “How do we ensure they are not left out of vaccine efforts, and thus potentially exposed to new COVID variants? It must be through a global, decisive and collective effort.”

Martinez said the ICRC’s role in this complex task is to support health authorities and Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies in the implementation of national vaccination plans.

The ICRC also facilitates vaccinations in last-mile areas by helping gain access across frontlines through its neutral, humanitarian work, and by helping with the logistics of transport and cold chains.

“Armed conflicts are unpredictable,” said Martinez. “Infrastructure and health systems are often weakened and in a bad shape. Negotiations with armed groups can be time consuming and sensitive. Vaccinating populations in these areas is difficult and delicate. It is, however, necessary.”
Vaccination rates in countries experiencing conflict are disturbingly low.

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In Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen around 1.2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Somalia is at 3.5 percent, while Syria is at 4 percent. That compares to a fully vaccinated rate of 43 percent globally, according to figures from Our World In Data.

“Omicron’s fast-moving effect on the world shows how important it is to increase vaccination rates everywhere to reduce the risk to health workers and populations and the potential emergence of additional variants of concern,” said Martinez. “Vaccinating people in conflict zones is a necessary step to finding a way out of the pandemic. We must also vaccinate detainees and people migrating to new locations.”

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UAE reports 1,796 new COVID-19 cases, no deaths

The UAE announced 1,796 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the official Emirates News Agency reported.

This brings the current total active cases in the UAE to 17,551 and the total number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic to 949,384, according to data from the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

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The cases were determined out of 232,943 tests in the last 24 hours.

No deaths from the virus were recorded on Saturday, maintaining the total deaths caused by COVID-19 to 2,317 in the UAE.

At least 1,727 patients recovered in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total COVID-19 recoveries to 929,516.

On June 13, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced it would strictly enforce its mask rules – with penalties for those flouting the protocol – and announced it would tighten its rules on the Al Hosn green pass system amid rising coronavirus cases across the country.

NCEMA said that it has recently “monitored some behaviors that have become a danger to society and public health,” referring to people not adhering to COVID-19 precautionary and preventative measures and how it has “negatively” impacted recovery efforts.

“Negligence and recklessness in following precautionary measures, and failure in the societal role in maintaining public health and acquired immunity, has resulted in a rise in the number of infections and new waves of the virus,” the authority spokesman said in the briefing.

The authority reaffirmed the need to wear masks in closed public spaces, reiterating that it was mandatory and that not adhering to this rule would result in a fine of up to $816 (AED 3,000).

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.1 million cases were reported globally in the last week.

It added, however, that the worldwide number of deaths remained relatively similar to the week before, at about 8,500, noting that COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

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Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines could increase protection as boosters: EMA

Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to include the omicron variant strain can improve protection when used as a booster, the European Medicines Agency and other global health regulators said on Friday.
Following a meeting on Thursday, the EMA said global regulators had agreed on key principles for updating COVID-19 shots to respond to emerging variants.
While the existing coronavirus vaccines continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, the group said, vaccine effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
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As such, an omicron-specific or bivalent booster – meaning a vaccine that includes both the new strain and the original coronavirus strain – could “increase and extend” protection, a statement from the EMA said.
The statement refers specifically to the mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been testing retooled versions of their vaccines to include the omicron variant.
Vaccines which include other variants, for example the beta variant, might also be considered for use as boosters if clinical trial data demonstrate an adequate level of neutralization against omicron and other variants of concern, the statement said.
It follows guidance from the World Health Organization that omicron-specific boosters could restore protection against emerging strains of the coronavirus.
But it stops short of the position of the regulator in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said on Thursday that it would seek the inclusion specifically of the newer BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron, currently driving a surge in new infections globally, in any new shots for use domestically.
On Tuesday, the head of a WHO advisory committee that has considered the modified shots said the group preferred BA.1-based boosters, arguing that the variant is more distinct and could generate a broader response than the more recently circulating subvariants.
Top US FDA official Peter Marks said in an interview that regulators from other countries were seriously considering using new boosters based on the BA.1 omicron variant that caused the massive surge in cases last winter, because those shots can be available sooner than the BA.4/5 based booster the United States plans to use.
The EMA said it would provide more details in coming days.
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Russia scraps remaining COVID-19 restrictions

Russia said on Friday it was ending all restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the requirement to wear masks, citing a steady decline in deaths from the virus.
However, it did not rule out re-introducing restrictive measures if the situation deteriorates.
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said it was “suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures.”
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It said the dynamics of the virus were consistent with global trends and 93 percent of confirmed cases were mild or asymptomatic.
Since the start of the pandemic in Russia in April 2020, over 800,000 people have died from coronavirus or causes related to COVID-19, Reuters calculations show, with the country recording over 18 million infections.
Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik V vaccine when the pandemic struck but take-up was slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products. About 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
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