The delta variant of the coronavirus has now triggered a fourth wave of the pandemic in the Middle East, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths is primarily being reported among people who are yet to be vaccinated, the global body said in a statement on Thursday.
The WHO said the highly transmissible strain, first detected in India, has been recorded in 15 out of the 22 countries and territories of the Eastern Mediterranean region, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
“The circulation of the delta variant is fuelling the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in an increasing number of countries in WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region,” it said.
“The rapid spread of the delta variant across the Eastern Mediterranean Region and all other WHO regions is a major cause for concern… Most of the new cases and hospitalised patients are unvaccinated people. We are now in the fourth wave of COVID-19 across the region,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean.
As of the last week of July, “only 41 million people, or 5.5 per cent of the region’s population, had been fully vaccinated”, the WHO said.
Infections have increased by 55 per cent, and deaths by 15 per cent, in the last month compared to the month before. More than 310,000 cases and 3,500 deaths have been recorded weekly.
Countries such as Tunisia, which has suffered the biggest number of COVID-19 deaths in North Africa, have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
Critical shortages of oxygen tanks and intensive care beds have stretched the capacities of healthcare systems regionally.
The rapid spread of the delta variant was quickly making it “the dominant strain” in the region, WHO said.
The WHO statement further said that amid the global shortages and grossly inequitable distribution of vaccines, it encourages higher income countries to donate doses to low- and lower middle-income countries.
WHO has set a target for 10 per cent of the population of all countries to be fully vaccinated by September, 40 per cent by the end of 2021, and 70 per cent by mid-2022, but this target will not be achieved unless high-income countries, many of which have already exceeded these targets, are willing to donate vaccines.
According to a recent paper in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the delta variant was 1,000 times higher than patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing its contagiousness.