UNITED NATIONS: The highly-infectious COVID-19 variant first detected in India "threatens" to rapidly spread in the sub-region, including among refugees, the UN refugee agency has said as it warned of vaccine shortages in the Asia-Pacific region, including for asylum-seekers.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Andrej Mahecic, at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, said that the fragile health systems in many countries in the Asia and Pacific region have struggled to cope with the recent surge of coronavirus cases.
"We are particularly worried about the situation in the Asia and Pacific region, which in the past two months has experienced the largest increase in the number of cases globally," he said. The UNHCR spokesperson said that over this period, there have been some 38 million recorded COVID-19 cases and more than half a million deaths.
"The lack of hospital beds, oxygen supplies, limited Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacities and scarce health facilities and services have worsened outcomes for those infected with COVID-19, particularly in India and Nepal. The highly infectious variant of the virus which first emerged in India threatens to rapidly spread in the sub-region, including among refugee populations," Mahecic said.
The B.1.617 COVID-19 variant, first detected in India, is divided in three lineages -- B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that only B.1.617.2 is now a "variant of concern", observing that lower rates of transmission have been observed for the other two lineages, making them no longer variants of concern.
The B.1.617.2 is now labelled variant Delta and has been reported in 62 countries as of June 1. With COVID-19 raging in many parts of the world, the UNHCR warned of shortages of vaccines in the Asia-Pacific region, including for refugees and asylum-seekers.
UNHCR spokesperson Mahecic said: "We urge an immediate and stronger support for the COVAX initiative, a worldwide effort aimed at achieving equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. This is critical to save lives and curb the impact of the virus, particularly in developing nations. These countries host the vast majority of more than 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Yet so far, they have benefited from only a fraction of the world's COVID-19 vaccines."
The UNHCR stressed that no one can be left behind in the global effort against the coronavirus. "The pandemic will be defeated only when vaccinations become available everywhere on an equitable basis," the agency said.
It said that the current delays in vaccine shipments, brought about by limited supplies to COVAX, mean that some of the world's most vulnerable people remain susceptible to the virus. "The UNHCR is adding its voice to the calls for countries with surplus doses to donate to COVAX, and for manufacturers to boost supplies to the COVAX facility," Mahecic said.
The UN refugee agency said that refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 as overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus.
It said that in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, where almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees are living in the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world, the number of cases has increased considerably in the last two months.
As of May 31, there have been over 1,188 cases among the refugees, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone. There is also a "worrying increase" in the number of COVID-19 cases among refugees and asylum-seekers in Nepal, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Some refugees, including in Nepal, have already received their first vaccine dose with COVAX-provided supplies while among the Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, not a single vaccine has been administered yet, given the scarcity of supplies in the country, the UN refugee agency added.
On Wednesday, India reported 1,32,788 new coronavirus infections, taking the country's tally to 2,83,07,832, according to the Union Health Ministry. The COVID-19 death toll climbed to 3,35,102 with 3,207 fresh deaths, it said, adding that the active cases were recorded below 20 lakh for the second consecutive day.