If COVID-19 trends continue, it could be years before virus is controlled: PAHO

FILE PHOTO: The word "COVID-19" is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration

By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA (Reuters) - If the spread of COVID-19 continues at current rates it will be years before the virus is controlled in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday, as it called for countries to share excess vaccine doses.

There were almost 1.2 million new cases and 34,000 deaths in the region last week, and four of the five countries with the highest death counts worldwide are in the Americas, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said during the organization's weekly news conference.

"If current trends continue, the health, social and economic disparities in our region will grow even larger, and it will be years before we control this virus in the Americas," Etienne said.

Infections are higher in many places in the region than at any other point during the pandemic, she said, and the emergence of new more easily transmitted variants has added new complexities to epidemiological surveillance.

Just 10% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated, with a particularly acute situation in Central American and the Caribbean.

PAHO is thankful to the United States, Spain and Canada for promises to donate millions of doses or funding, but more needs to be done, the director said.

"We hope other countries – particularly those with excess doses – and global financial institutions will follow in their footsteps to provide the support we need," Etienne said. "Vaccine donations are essential in the short-term."

Ahead of the kick-off of the Copa America soccer tournament in Brazil on Sunday, Ciro Ugarte, PAHO's Director of Health Emergencies, said countries hosting mass events should consider postponing if COVID-19 risks cannot be controlled.

Venezuela still owes $10 million in funding for vaccines via the COVAX vaccine sharing program, Ugarte said.

COVAX supply for Venezuela will likely not be ready soon because of global demand, but PAHO hopes Venezuela and other regional countries will be given priority because they have not yet received COVAX doses.

Hospitalizations in Haiti are stretching oxygen supplies there, Etienne said.

Haiti, one of only a handful of countries which has yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine, is grappling with its first major outbreak.

Bolivia and Colombia are seeing a rise in cases and deaths and intensive care unit beds are near capacity in many Colombian cities, Etienne added.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)