Amid the detection of a new coronavirus variant and surge in cases elsewhere, the WHO Saturday asked countries in the southeast Asia region to scale up surveillance, strengthen public health and social measures, and enhance vaccination coverage.
The global health body said festivities and celebrations must include all precautionary measures and crowds and large gatherings must be avoided.
"At no cost should we let our guards down," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO, South-East Asia Region.
"Though COVID-19 cases have been declining in most countries of our Region, the surge in cases elsewhere in the world and confirmation of a new Variant of Concern, is a reminder of the persisting risk and the need for us to continue to do our best to protect against the virus and prevent its spread," she said in a statement.
Countries must enhance surveillance and sequencing, she said.
Based on updated information on circulating variants and response capacities, they should assess the risk of importation through international travel and take measures accordingly, she said.
Comprehensive and tailored public health and social measures to prevent transmission must continue, Singh stressed, noting that the earlier the protective measures are implemented, the less restrictive they would need to be in order to be effective.
"The more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus will have to change and mutate, and the pandemic will last longer," the Regional Director said.
The most important thing people must do is reduce their risk of exposure to the virus wear a mask covering nose and mouth; keep safe distance; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cover cough and sneeze; and get vaccinated, she stated.
"As of today 31 per cent of the Region's population is fully vaccinated, 21% partially vaccinated while nearly 48%, or about a billion people are yet to receive even a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine," she said, adding that they continue to be at risk of contracting severe disease and spreading the virus further.
Even after getting vaccinated, everyone must continue to take precautions to prevent becoming infected and to infect someone else who may get severely affected by the virus, she suggested.
The WHO's Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution met Friday and designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern and named it Omicron. Researchers are working to understand how transmissible or virulent this variant is, and how it will impact diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
"We must not forget that the pandemic is far from over. As societies open up, we should not get complacent. Festivities and celebrations must include all precautionary measures. Crowds and large gatherings must be avoided. The current situation warrants further stepping up efforts on all fronts," the Regional Director said.
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