The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that it is struggling to identify and trace new Covid variants as governments roll back testing and surveillance, jeopardizing progress in the fight against the virus.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, said the virus was 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 any robust tests to 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 assess the known variants and subvariants, but also our ability to track and identify new ones.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Thursday of the “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 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 are just beginning to see the light at the end of this tunnel but there is still a long way to go and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that could trip us up, if we’re not careful,” Tedros said.
The WHO is currently tracking about 200 omicron sublineages, Van Kerkhove said. The global health authority is closely monitoring Omicron BA.2.75, BF.7 and BA.4.6, among others, she said. These variants have started to gain a foothold in countries like the US, where omicron BA.5, the fastest-spread variant to date, has dominated for months.
Health authorities are still unable to accurately predict how big the Covid flares will be from season to season, Van Kerkhove said. Some public health experts believe the virus will eventually behave similarly to the flu, which has manageable waves of infection during the fall and winter months.
“We don’t yet have the predictability with SARS-CoV-2 as with other types of pathogens where we expect to see seasonality. We may get there, but we’re not there yet. That’s the message – we’re not there yet,” said Van Kerkhove.
Though the future is uncertain, Tedros said the world is in a “significantly better position” than at any other time during the pandemic. Two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, including three-quarters of healthcare workers and the elderly, he said.
Weekly Covid deaths have continued to fall 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 from Covid in the week ending September. 18, 17% less than in the previous week.
“In most countries, restrictions have ended and life looks much like it did before the pandemic,” Tedros said. “But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many when most of those deaths could be prevented.”