WHO warns ability to identify new Covid variants will decline as testing declines

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RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, Head ai Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks at a press conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2020.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that it is struggling to identify and track new Covid variants as governments roll back testing and surveillance, threatening progress in the fight against the virus.

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

“Our ability to track variants and sub-variants around the world is declining as surveillance wanes,” Van Kerkhove told reporters during an update in Geneva. “That limits our ability to assess the known variants and subvariants, but also our ability to track and identify new ones.”

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Thursday that there is “the ever-present risk of more dangerous variants emerging” as the virus continues to spread and change. Tedros said “the pandemic is not over yet, but the end is in sight,” contradicting US President Joe Biden’s claim earlier this week that the pandemic had ended.

“We have spent two and a half years in a long dark tunnel and we are just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel, but it is still far away and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that could give us trip if we’re not careful,” Tedros said.

The WHO is currently tracking about 200 sublines of ommicrons, Van Kerkhove said. The global health body is closely monitoring omicron BA.2.75, BF.7 and BA.4.6, among others, she said. Those variants are starting to gain a foothold in countries like the US, where omicron BA.5, the fastest-spreading variant to date, has been dominant for months.

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Health authorities still cannot accurately predict how big the Covid peaks will be from season to season, Van Kerkhove said. Some public health experts believe the virus will eventually behave the same as 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 might get there, but we’re not there. That’s the message – we’re not there yet,” said Van graveyard.

While the future is uncertain, Tedros said the world is in a significantly better position compared to any other point in the pandemic. Two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, including three-quarters of health professionals and the elderly, he said.

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

“We are in a significantly better position than we’ve ever been. In most countries, restrictions have ended and life is just like it was before the pandemic,” Tedros said. “But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many if most of these deaths could have been prevented.”

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