The World Health Organization (WHO) welcomed on Thursday Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow only 60,000 residents vaccinated against COVID-19 to perform this year’s Hajj.
WHO representative to Saudi Arabia Dr. Ibrahim El-Ziq said the UN body supports the measures taken by the kingdom for this year’s holy pilgrimage because they are based on “scientific evidence to assess the risks.”
This reflects its good management of the health crisis, he said, describing Saudi Arabia’s response to the pandemic as “impressive” and the best in the region “if not the whole world.”
He also commended its mass vaccinations, noting that 70 percent of the residents have already received the first jab and will take the second shot in July.
His remarks were made Thursday during a virtual media briefing by the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) on the COVID-19 situation in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and preparations for the Hajj.
WHO Regional Director for the EMRO Dr. Ahmed al-Mandhari, Director of Program Management at the WHO EMRO Rana Hajjeh, Deputy Saudi Minister of Health for Public Health Hani Jokhdar, El-Ziq and Health Emergency Preparedness and IHR Program Area Manager at WHO Dr. Dalia Samhouri took part in the virtual event.
“As of June 22, there have been around 179 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including more than 3.9 million deaths, reported globally to WHO,” Mandhari said.
The Eastern Mediterranean region has reported around 10.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and around 213 500 deaths, he added.
He said the number of cases is declining for the 10th consecutive week, with the number of deaths stabilizing or declining slightly.
However, he said six countries in the region reported an increase in new cases last week, compared to the previous one.
The case increase in Oman and Yemen exceeded 20 percent, and Afghanistan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen have reported a more than 20 percent increase in the number of deaths.
Mandhari attributed these increases to the spread of variants of concern, non-compliance to preventative measures and vaccine inequity, which, along with vaccine hesitancy, is being witnessed globally and across the region.
“As of June 21, 2.4 billion vaccine doses had been administered globally, of which approximately 83 million were administered in the region, covering only 11 doses per 100 people (as of June 20).”
“While a handful of countries have high vaccination rates, eight of our 22 countries have vaccinated less than one percent of their population,” he noted.
Mandhari further stressed that the region still needs over 400 million doses to vaccinate priority groups – who make up 40 percent of the region’s population – by the end of the year.
“If countries immediately share doses with the COVAX Facility and if manufacturers prioritize COVAX orders, we will be in a better position to achieve WHO’s targets to vaccinate at least 10 percent of the population of every country by September, and at least 40 percent by the end of the year,” he explained.
The senior official pointed out that the COVAX Facility is playing an effective role in delivering vaccines to ensure the fastest, most equitable rollout of safe and effective vaccines to all.
“As of June 8, the COVAX Facility has shipped over 90 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 131 countries, including to 21 countries in our region.”
More doses will be made available through COVAX this month to countries of the region, he revealed, especially to countries that have so far not received quantities sufficient to their needs.
He warned that variants of concern continue to circulate across the region.
“To date, 17 countries have officially reported detection of the VOC Alpha, 11 countries have reported the VOC Beta, three countries have reported the detection of the VOC Gamma, and seven countries have reported the VOC Delta.”
The WHO continues to observe how vaccine efficacy is affected by these new variants, but so far, vaccines are still proving effective against all new variants, he said.