The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that it is struggling to identify and track new variants of Covid as governments relax testing and surveillance, threatening progress made in fighting the virus.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Covid-19 technological advance, said the virus was still circulating at an “incredibly intense level” around the world. The WHO is “deeply concerned” that it is developing at a time when robust testing is no longer in place to help quickly identify new variants, Van Kerkhove said.
“Our ability to track variants and sub-variants around the world is diminishing as tracking is declining,” Van Kerkhove told reporters during an update in Geneva. “This limits our ability to assess known variants and subvariants, but also our ability to track and identify new ones.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Thursday that there was an “ever-present risk that more dangerous variants will emerge” as the virus continues to spread and change. Tedros said the “pandemic is not over, but the end is in sight,” contradicting the president Joe Biden announcement earlier this week that the pandemic is over.
“We have spent two and a half years in a long dark tunnel and we are just beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, but it is still a long way off and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles to trip up. awake if we don’t take care of it,” Tedros said.
The WHO currently monitors about 200 omicron sublines, Van Kerkhove said. The global health body is closely monitoring omicron BA.2.75, BF.7 and BA.4.6 among other subvariants, she said. These variants have begun to gain ground in countries such as the US, where omicron BA.5, the fastest-spreading variant to date, has dominated for months.
Health authorities are still not able to predict exactly how big the spikes in Covid will be from season to season, Van Kerkhove said. Some public health experts believe the virus will eventually behave like the flu, with manageable waves of infection during the fall and winter months.
“With SARS-CoV-2, we don’t have predictability yet, just like we have other types of pathogens where we expect seasonality. We may get there, but we’re not there. That’s the message — we’re not there yet.” Van Kerkhove said.
Although the future is uncertain, Tedros said the world is in a “significantly better position” than at any other point during the pandemic. Two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, including three-quarters of health workers and the elderly, he said.
Weekly covid deaths continue to fall dramatically in all regions of the world and now stand at 10% of the peak of the pandemic in January 2021, according to WHO. More than 9,800 people died from covid in the week ending 18 September, down 17% from the previous week .
“In most countries, restrictions have ended and life is similar to what it was before the pandemic,” Tedros said. “But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many when most of those deaths are preventable.”