The World Health Organization estimates that 90% of the world population now has some resistance to Covid-19, but warned that a troubling new variant could still emerge.

Gaps in vigilance were leaving the door open for a new virus variant to appear and overtake the globally dominant Omicron, the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said.

“WHO estimates that at least 90% of the world’s population now has some level of immunity to Sars-CoV-2, due to prior infection or vaccination,” said Tedros, referring to the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease.

“We are much closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over – but we’re not there yet,” he told reporters.

“Gaps in surveillance, testing, sequencing and vaccination are continuing to create the perfect conditions for a new variant of concern to emerge that could cause significant mortality.”

Last weekend marked one year since the organisation announced Omicron as a new variant of concern in the Covid-19 pandemic, Tedros noted.

It has since swept round the world, proving significantly more transmissible than its predecessor, Delta.

Last week, the latest real-world study of updated Covid boosters showed that new vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are likely to provide better protection compared with the original shots.

The study of more than 360,000 people indicated that the boosters offer increased protection against new variants in people who have previously received up to four doses of the older vaccine.

Since their introduction to the US in September, the vaccine boosters, which contain both original and Omicron BA.4/5 coronavirus strain, provided greater benefit to younger adults aged 18-49 years that those in the older age group.

Tedros said there were now more than 500 highly transmissible Omicron sub-lineages circulating – all able to get around built-up immunity more easily, even if they tended to be less severe than previous variants.

Around the world, 6.6 million Covid deaths have been reported to the WHO, from nearly 640 million registered cases. But the UN health agency says this will be a massive undercount and unreflective of the true toll.

Tedros said more than 8,500 people were recorded as having lost their lives to Covid last week, “which is not acceptable three years into the pandemic, when we have so many tools to prevent infections and save lives”.

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