Senior officials of World Health Organisation (WHO) say despite the emergence of the new Mu COVID-19 variant, the Delta strain of the rampaging killer virus still remains a top concern globally. The Delta variant, according to the global health agency, appears to be “outcompeting” others.
This came just as the General Assembly of the United Nations on Tuesday held a High-level Forum on the Culture of Peace, focused on building resilience and a fair recovery against the continued ravages of COVID-19.
Opening the event, the President of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, said “the global pandemic has arguably brought humanity closer together”, adding, “rarely have we been so united against a common challenge. We must build on this shared sense of grief and anxiety, and work together to not only tackle COVID-19 but all other challenges that stand in our path.’’
Bozkir said the challenges “are many”, recalling his last trip to Cox’s Bazaar, in Bangladesh, where he spoke to Rohingya refugees sheltering there, and he highlight the plight faced by many in Afghanistan today, who are “scrambling to find safety and security amidst so much uncertainty.”
For him, “peace is much, much more than the absence of conflict”, explaining, “it is a conscious effort by each of us, each moment, to talk, to listen, and to engage. It is a sustained effort to understand and overcome differences.”
Highlighting what it means to adopt a culture of peace, Bozkir said “it is one thing to reject violence, it is an entirely different thing to make the deliberate effort to adjust our cultures and behaviours to avoid the occurrence of violence in the first place.”
He also stressed the values and principles of such a culture, including the need for dialogue and debate, for negotiation and nuance, and for empathy and understanding.
The Assembly president then pointed to the crisis in Afghanistan, saying the international community will have to draw on its “shared sense of humanity, of empathy, of compassion, to go the extra mile and provide necessary humanitarian support.”
Bozkir believes the UN already has the tools to support member states in these efforts, such as early warning strategies against conflict escalation, fact-finding missions, early deployment of peacekeepers, and fast rollout of humanitarian assistance.
For him, these are “all vital to maintaining and supporting a culture of peace, particularly when combined with development efforts that empower communities and ease tensions.”
Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Chef de Cabinet of the UN Secretary General, also spoke at the event, as well as Miguel Ángel Moratinos, High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisation (UNAOC), UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, and Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin.
Leading civil society representatives also took part, including Beatrice Fihn, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); Kazumi Matsui, Mayor of Hiroshima and President of “Mayors for Peace”; and Federico Mayor Zaragoza, President of Foundation for a Culture of Peace and former Director-General of UNESCO.
However, speaking during an online question and answer session, WHO’s Technical Lead for COVID-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said “I think the Delta variant for me is the one that’s most concerning because of the increased transmissibility. It’s doubly transmissible compared to the ancestral strain, which means that it can spread to more people.”
Van Kerkhove said that Delta continues to evolve and scientists are studying to see how the virus might be changing, with new variants continuing to emerge.
Last week, WHO announced it was closely monitoring the Mu variant, also known as B.1621, which was first identified in Colombia in January 2021. It is among five “variants of interest” the agency is tracking at the global level.
Mu has a number of mutations that suggest it could be more resistant to vaccines, WHO said at the time, noting that further research will be needed.
Van Kerkhove reported that the proportion of Mu cases in South America is increasing, but numbers are decreasing in other countries where the Delta variant is circulating.
Head of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, Dr. Michael Ryan, explained that viruses essentially compete against each other. Currently Delta “tends to outcompete other variants”, he said.
While more COVID-19 variants are to be expected, “not every variant means the sky is going to fall in,” he added. “Each variant needs to be looked at for its characteristics in terms of its potential to cause more severe disease, its potential to transmit, its potential to escape vaccines.”
Globally, the overall COVID-19 caseload is “quite a worrying situation”, according to Dr. Van Kerkhove.
While cases have plateaued, some 4.5 million are reported each week, with deaths hovering around 68,000 weekly, and both numbers are underestimates.
Van Kerkhove said WHO is seeing “a lot of circulation among unvaccinated people” but there are also positive developments, including a reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among those who have been inoculated against the disease.
“But globally. it’s quite worrying”, she said. “We shouldn’t be having this number of cases around the world, especially because we have the tools that really can prevent that from happening.”