WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday that ignoring COVID-19 alertness could lead to the emergence of a deadly new variant.
It has been a year since the World Health Organization designated Omicron as a “variant of concern,” as Tedros pointed out over the weekend.
“Last Saturday marked 1 year since WHO announced a new COVID-19 variant of concern: the Omicron variant. Omicron has proved to be significantly more transmissible than Delta, and continues to cause significant mortality due to the intensity of transmission, Tedros said.
“The number of weekly COVID-19 deaths reported to WHO has declined slightly over the past 5 weeks, but over 8,500 people lost their lives last week – which is not acceptable three years into the pandemic, when we have so many tools to prevent infections and save lives.”
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“Since the emergence of Omicron, the COVID-19 virus has continued to evolve. Today, there are over 500 sublineages of Omicron circulating,” he added.
“They are all highly transmissible; they replicate in the upper respiratory tract & tend to cause less severe disease than previous variants of concern; & they all have mutations that enable them to escape built-up immunity more easily.”
Just a few months after declaring that the world has never been in a better position to end the pandemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reversed course.
“We are much closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over, but we’re not there yet,” Tedros said.
Tedros claimed that 90% of the population now has some level of immunity to COVID-19 because of previous infection or vaccination.
“WHO estimates that at least 90% of the world’s population now has some level of immunity to SARS-CoV-2, due to prior infection or vaccination. We are much closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over – but we’re not there yet,” he said.
“As many countries reduce testing, WHO is receiving less and less information about transmission and sequencing. This makes us increasingly blind to patterns of transmission and evolution. But this virus will not go away just because countries stop looking for it,” Tedros warned.
“Gaps in surveillance, testing, sequencing and vaccination are continuing to create the perfect conditions for a new variant of concern to emerge that could cause significant mortality,” he continued.
[Tedros] comments come as China experiences a rebound in infections.
Addressing the global gaps in vaccination, WHO’s technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said that the agency wants governments around the world, including in China, to focus on reaching those at risk such as people over the age of 60 and those with underlying conditions.
The further easing of COVID-19 testing requirements and quarantine rules in some Chinese cities was met with a mix of relief and worry on Friday, as hundreds of millions await an expected shift in national virus policies after widespread social unrest.
It was encouraging that China was adjusting its current COVID-19 control strategies, WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan said.
Ryan said he hopes that a coherent and clear strategy emerges in China “that balances the control of the virus with … the livelihoods, wellbeing and human rights of the people.”