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Dubai: Top WHO official reveals how to stay safe amid new Covid-19 variants – Khaleej Times

Monday, Dec 13, 2021 | Jumada Al-Uola 8, 1443
Published: Sun 12 Dec 2021, 5:59 PM
Last updated: Sun 12 Dec 2021, 7:18 PM
Countries must adopt a robust surveillance system and share their data with the global community to truly reap the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in detecting newer variants of Covid-19, if any, a top World Health Organisation (WHO) official told Khaleej Times on Sunday.
Dr Samira Asma, assistant director-general, data, analytics and delivery for impact at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, said, “We need accurate data to be better prepared. A strong surveillance system in every country is essential to detect any anomalies, whether new variants.”
She added, “We have learned how some of the countries did a good job to identify new variants, thanks to good surveillance systems.”
Dr Asma was speaking at the press conference organised by WHO on the occasion of Universal Health Coverage Day at Expo 2020 Dubai. She was joined by top officials from the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.
Dr Asma said only 27 per cent of countries have the sustainable capacity to survey health risks. “Not only health risks, but for example, four out of 10 countries in Africa do not register their deaths. Nine out of 10 deaths in Africa are not registered. If deaths are not registered, the cause of death is not known, and if the cause of death is not known, it is hard to find out how any of the viruses or bacteria have affected the individual.”
The doctor stressed the need for an integrated healthcare and data surveillance system. “It is essential for us to use innovative tools and technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence. However, the data is as good as what’s provided at the local or country level,” she explained.
“We need both – we need to generate credible data in a real-time manner to reap the potential of AI and big data by connecting the various data sources from multiple inputs. In return, we can provide countries with the intelligence needed to form policy decisions for timely prevention and control,” explained the official.
Basic intervention techniques, such as mask-wearing and sanitisation, works effectively against the Omicron variant, said Dr Rana Hajjeh, director of programme management at the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.
She said while the Omicron variant of Covid-19 can be transmitted faster, research has shown it is not leading to more severe disease. “Majority of patients infected with Omicron, especially based on studies of those in South Africa, have relatively mild symptoms,” said Dr Hajjeh.
Moreover, preliminary data from available Covid- 19 vaccines offer protection against the variant. “A recent study from Pfizer showed that there is enough immune response – what we call neutralising antibodies to Omicron – which is excellent news,” she added.
Dr Hajjeh stated, “I would like to reiterate that this leads to some of the same messages we have been repeating throughout the pandemic. While improving vaccination coverage is important, continuing to abide by basic intervention measures such as wearing masks, hygiene and avoiding crowded places remain true and effective.”
Commenting on the subject of increasing the shelf-life of existing Covid-19 vaccinations, Dr Hajjeh said, “The WHO is working with an expert committee – a strategic advisory group on immunisation – to encourage companies to come up with vaccines that have a longer shelf life. They are also starting to test existing vaccines on their ability to have a longer shelf-life.”
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