WHO warns that ability to identify new Covid variants is diminishing

RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a press conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 29 January 2020.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that it was struggling to identify and track new variants of Covid as governments rolled back testing and surveillance, threatening progress in tackling the virus.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Covid-19 technical official, said virus is still circulating at an “incredibly intense level” around the world. The WHO is “deeply concerned” that it is moving at a time when there are no longer robust tests in place to help identify new variants quickly, Van Kerkhove said.

“Our ability to track variants and sub-variants around the world is diminishing because surveillance is diminishing,” 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 of more dangerous variants emerging” as the virus continues to spread and change. Tedros said ‘the pandemic is not over but the end is in sight’, contradicting the US president that of Joe Biden assertion earlier this week that the pandemic was over.

“We have spent two and a half years in a long dark tunnel and we are only just beginning to see the light at the end of this tunnel, but it is still far and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that could cause us to stumble if we don’t care,” Tedros said.

The WHO is currently tracking 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 sub-variants, she said. These variants have started to gain a foothold in countries like the United States where omicron BA.5, the fastest-spreading variant to date, has been dominating for months.

Health authorities are still unable to accurately predict the magnitude of Covid outbreaks from season to season, Van Kerkhove said. Some public health experts believe the virus will eventually behave similarly to the flu, where there are manageable waves of infection during the fall and winter months.

“We don’t have predictability yet with SARS-CoV-2 like we have other types of pathogens where we expect seasonality. We can get there, but we’re not there yet. That’s the message – we’re not there yet,” Van Kerkhove said.

Although 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 are vaccinated, including three-quarters of healthcare workers and the elderly, he said.

Weekly Covid deaths have continued to decline dramatically in all regions of the world and now account for 10% of the pandemic’s peak in January 2021, according to WHO data. More than 9,800 people died of Covid in the week ending September 1. 18, down 17% from the previous week.

“We are in a much better position than ever. In most countries the restrictions have ended and life is much like it was before the pandemic,” Tedros said. “But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many when most of those deaths could be avoided.”

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