US President Joe Biden is urging Americans to get vaccinated or boosted amid a surge in cases linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant, warning of a “winter of severe illness and death” for those who are yet to get inoculated for COVID-19.
Biden’s appeal on Thursday came as the Group of Seven countries called Omicron the biggest threat to public health and the United Nations chief called for an end to global vaccine inequity.
Scientists remain uncertain how dangerous the highly mutated Omicron variant is, but early data suggests it can be more resistant to vaccines and is more transmissible than the Delta variant.
In the US in recent weeks, the average number of daily cases has risen by 30 percent. On December 1, the daily count was 86,000. but on December 14, it had shot up to 117,000.
“It’s here now, it’s spreading, and it’s going to increase,” Biden said, referring to the Omicron variant. “For the unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death. For themselves, their families and the hospitals that will soon be overwhelmed.”
He added, “The only real protection is to get your shot.”
Amid the rise in infections, Broadway shows are being cancelled because of more and more positive tests among drama companies, while major US universities are reverting to classes and tests online to try to halt the spread of the virus.
The National Football League has also introduced stricter health controls after 100 or so players tested positive since the beginning of the week. The NBA has also been hit with games being postponed.
The US is the hardest hit country in the world and is currently averaging 1,150 COVID-19 deaths per day, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It surpassed 800,000 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. That is higher than the population of some states, such as Alaska or North Dakota.
More than half of those deaths, some 450,000, occurred this year, even though effective and free vaccines became available in March. Most of those who died this year were unvaccinated.
‘Biggest threat to global public health’
The outbreak linked to the new variant has spread globally, and more European nations are implementing travel restrictions.
The G7 on Thursday called the variant the “biggest current threat to global public health”, saying its emergence meant it was “more important than ever” for countries to closely cooperate and share data.
In a meeting hosted by the United Kingdom, the group’s chair, the countries’ health ministers emphasised the “increasing importance of booster campaigns and regular testing”, according to a statement.
The stark words came as the UK saw more than 88,000 COVID-19 infections, a second consecutive record daily number, prompting France to impose “drastic” new limits on travel to the neighbouring country.
There are now fears the variant could overwhelm hospitals during the festive season, and many Britons are scrambling to change their plans.
Queen Elizabeth II cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch next week as a precautionary measure, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying such gatherings could still go ahead.
The Premier League on Thursday also postponed six more football matches, though it said it intended to “continue its current fixture schedule where safely possible”.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres exhorted the world to make “concrete” progress within days toward a now-distant goal of vaccinating 40 percent of the global population against COVID-19 before the year ends.
“Vaccine inequity is giving variants a free pass to run wild,” Guterres – working from home because of exposure to the coronavirus – told reporters by videoconference.
“The strategy of vaccine hoarding, the strategy of vaccine nationalism or the strategy of vaccine diplomacy has failed. This new variant has demonstrated this failure,” said Guterres, who came into contact last week with someone who tested positive for the virus.
The UN chief has since tested negative.
With little more than two weeks to go by the end of the year, 98 countries have yet to meet the WHO’s 40 percent-vaccinated target, Guterres said.
Forty countries have not vaccinated even 10 percent.
“All countries, especially those that have potential of responsibilities, must take concrete action in the coming days to make greater progress” towards the year-end goal, Guterres said.
He added that they need to “be far more ambitious” in moving towards the WHO’s next benchmark: inoculating 70 percent of the world by the middle of next year.