The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that it is struggling to detect and track new variants of Covid as governments cut back on testing and surveillance, threatening progress made in fighting the virus.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Corona virus infection covid-19 technical chief, said the virus was still circulating at an “incredibly intense level” around the world. The WHO is “deeply concerned” that this is developing at a time when reliable testing no longer exists to help quickly identify new variants, Van Kerkhove said.
“Our ability to track variants and sub-variants around the world is diminishing because surveillance is declining,” Van Kerchow told reporters during an update in Geneva. “This limits our ability to evaluate 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 a “constant risk of more dangerous variants emerging” as the virus continued to spread and change. Tedros said “the pandemic is not over, but the end is in sight,” contradicting the president Joe Biden Earlier this week, the pandemic was declared over.
“We’ve spent two and a half years in a long dark tunnel and we’re just beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, but it’s still a long way off and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that can trip us up if we’re not careful.” Tedros said.
The WHO currently tracks about 200 omicron sublineages, Van Kerchow said. The World Health Organization is closely monitoring omicron BA.2.75, BF.7 and BA.4.6 among other subvariants, she said. These variants began to gain a foothold in countries such as the US, where omicron BA.5, the fastest-growing variant, dominated for months.
Health authorities still cannot accurately predict how big Covid outbreaks will be from season to season, Van Kerchow said. Some health experts believe that the virus will eventually behave like the flu, with manageable waves of infection during the fall and winter months.
“We don’t yet have predictability with SARS-CoV-2, as we do with other types of pathogens where we expect seasonality. We can achieve it, but we have not achieved it. That message is we’re not there yet,” Van Kerchow said.
While the future is uncertain, Tedros said the world is in a “much better position” than at any other time during the pandemic. Two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, including three-quarters of health workers and the elderly, he said.
Weekly deaths from Covid continue to decline sharply in all regions of the world and are now 10% of the peak of the pandemic in January 2021, according to WHO data. More than 9,800 people died from Covid during the week ending September 18, a 17% decrease from the previous week.
“In most countries, the restrictions are over and life is the same as it was before the pandemic,” Tedros said. “But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many when most of those deaths were preventable.”
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