World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday that the delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations and in nations where COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
At a briefing from the agency's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tedros said the delta variant was the most transmissible of the COVID-19 variants identified so far and had been detected in at least 85 countries.
He said that while the global number of COVID-19 cases had been declining for eight straight weeks, the rate of decline had slowed. In Africa, the number of cases and deaths increased by almost 40%.
As some countries ease public health and social measures, virus transmission has increased around the world, Tedros said.
"More cases mean more hospitalizations, further stretching health workers and health systems, which increases the risk of death," he said.
Variants of any widespread virus are to be expected, Tedros said, because it is how viruses evolve. They can be prevented by stopping transmission, he said, which makes it even more urgent for people in areas with low vaccination rates to consistently follow public health measures and take advantage of effective vaccine programs.
That is why he has been stressing for the past year the importance of "vaccine equity," along with protecting health workers and the most vulnerable, he said. The lack of vaccine in the world's poorest nations is creating what he calls "a two-track pandemic."
"Those who have vaccines are getting better significantly, and they're opening up their society," Tedros said. "Those who don't have vaccines are facing serious COVID situations with serious surges in cases and deaths due to COVID. That's the reality now."
The Associated Press, Reuters news service and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.