The head of the World Health Organization has criticized those spreading misinformation and disinformation, saying it is undermining science and driving vaccine hesitancy.

Looking back at the two years since the pandemic began, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, or WHO, said: “Populism, narrow nationalism, and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines, by a small number of countries undermined equity, and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants.”

In 2020, there were 1.8 million virus deaths recorded, followed by 3.5 million in 2021, but Tedros said the real number should be much higher than reported. Additionally, millions of people are dealing with long-term consequences from the virus.

“Misinformation and disinformation, often spread by a small number of people, have been a constant distraction, undermining science and trust in lifesaving health tools,” Tedros said. “In the huge waves of cases currently seen in Europe and in many countries around the world, misinformation, which has driven vaccine hesitancy, is now translating to the unvaccinated disproportionally dying.”

The director-general is staying optimistic that the acute stage of the pandemic can end in 2022.

“Building on the successes and failures, we must not only share vaccines faster and more equitably with COVAX and AVAT, we must support countries in manufacturing and rolling them out to everyone. And access to new treatments must also follow,” he said.

He warned that the virus will continue to evolve and will threaten health systems if the collective response is not improved.

“Right now, Delta and Omicron are twin threats that are driving up cases to record numbers, which again is leading to spikes in hospitalizations and deaths,” Tedros said. “I am highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.”

On vaccine equity in the year ahead, Tedros urged the leaders of governments, industry, and civil society to ensure consistent supply and help people get vaccinations.

The WHO head noted that vaccine supply is improving, but said booster drives in rich countries could cause low-income countries to go short again.

He said 92 member states out of 194 have failed to reach the WHO’s target of 40 percent vaccination coverage by the end of the year.

“I call on leaders of rich countries and manufacturers to learn the lessons of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and now Omicron and work together to reach the 70 percent vaccination coverage,” he said. “This is the time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by ending global vaccine inequity.”

Tedros hopes to have the 70 percent vaccine coverage in every country by the start of July and stressed that ending health inequity remains key to ending the pandemic.

Looking at 2022, he said the WHO will work with member states to “build well-financed health systems, strengthen preparedness, and ensure the equitable distribution of health tools”.