RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, Head of Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a press conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2020.
Denis Balibuse | Reuters
The World Health Organization on Thursday warned that it is struggling to identify and trace new variants of Covid as governments cancel testing and surveillance, threatening progress in the fight against the virus.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical manager for Covid-19, said the virus is still circulating at an “incredibly intense level” around the world. WHO is “deeply concerned” that it is evolving at a time when reliable tests are no longer in place to help quickly identify new variants, Van Kerkhove said.
“Our ability to track variants and subvariants around the world is decreasing because surveillance is decreasing,” Van Kerkhove told reporters during an update in Geneva. “This limits our ability to evaluate known variants and subvariants, but also our ability to track down and identify new ones.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Thursday that there is 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 US President Joe Biden’s claim earlier this week that the pandemic was over.
“We have spent two and a half years in a long dark tunnel and we are just starting to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel, but it is still a long way off and the tunnel is still dark with lots of obstacles this could trip us up if we don’t take care” , Tedros said.
WHO is currently monitoring about 200 omicron sublines, Van Kerkhove said. The global health body is keeping an eye on omicron BA.2.75, BF.7 and BA.4.6 among other sub-variants, she said. Those variants have started to take hold in countries like the United States, where omicron BA.5, the fastest-spreading variant, has been dominant for months.
Health authorities are still unable to accurately predict how large Covid spikes will be 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 still don’t have predictability with SARS-CoV-2 as we have other types of pathogens where we expect seasonality. We might 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 anywhere else in 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 have continued to drop dramatically in all regions of the world and now account for 10% of the pandemic peak in January 2021, according to WHO data. More than 9,800 people died of Covid during the week ending September 18, down 17% from the previous week.
“We are in a significantly better position than we have ever been in. In most countries, the restrictions are over and life looks a lot like it did before the pandemic,” Tedros said. “But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many when most of these deaths could be prevented.”