Global health authorities are closer than ever to being able to declare the emergency phase of COVID-19 over, but a growing decline in surveillance and vaccination could open the door to a concerning new variant, according to the World Health Organization. health (WHO).
There are many tools available to protect individuals from serious illness and to track the virus and how it continues to mutate, but gaps in testing, sequencing and vaccination for COVID-19 continue to create “the conditions perfect for a concerning new variant to emerge that could lead to significant mortality,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a briefing on Friday.
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“We are much closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over, but we are not there yet,” he said.
Last week marked one year since the WHO declared Omicron a variant of concern, and since then the virus has continued to spread and mutate, with over 500 Omicron sublines now circulating in the world. the world, the WHO said.
And while Omicron tends to cause less severe disease than previous variants, the virus’s uncanny ability to mutate in ways that allow it to evade immunity, whether from vaccination or infection , means COVID-19 remains an ongoing threat, Tedros said.
It also means that detailed information on how the virus evolves and behaves continues to be vital, he added.
In recent months, WHO officials have urged countries to step up tracking, testing and sequencing of COVID-19, following a marked decline in surveillance measures as public health restrictions were eased. in the whole world.
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The WHO has also added caveats to its weekly epidemiological reports on the global circulation of COVID-19 and the number of cases, noting that any trends “must be interpreted with due consideration of the limitations of COVID-19 surveillance systems. 19”.
“These (limitations) include differences in sequencing capacity and sampling strategies between countries, changes in sampling strategies over time, reductions in testing done and sequences shared by countries, and delays in submission of sequences,” the WHO said in its Nov. 11 weekly epidemiological update. 30.
Collecting data on how the virus moves through populations and conducting genomic surveillance are key to monitoring changes in COVID-19 and identifying possible new variants of concern, said Maria Van Kerkhove, epidemiologist for the infectious diseases who is WHO’s technical lead for COVID. -19 response.
But tracking variants has become difficult due to declining tracking measures, she said.
“We have a limited amount of variant information these days because surveillance has gone down, testing has gone down, sequencing has gone down and that means there’s less data to analyze.”
To underscore this, Van Kerkhove said on Friday that while there were at least 2.5 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide reported to the WHO in the past week, that number is an “underestimate. of the circulation of this virus in the world”.
“Some wastewater estimates suggest that number could be up to five times higher in some countries,” she said.
“This virus is circulating rampantly around the world and we need to be able to absorb the circulation of COVID (and) COVID cases in the context of whatever is circulating, including influenza, including RSV and other pathogens that are out there.”
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Canada is among many countries that have seen a significant reduction in COVID-19 testing, due to provinces and territories adopting testing policies that rely primarily on rapid tests to detect the virus. , which are not tracked.
Laboratory tests, or PCR, which not only determine positivity but can also detect genetic changes in the virus, are now only done for certain key populations in most parts of the country.
Without strong surveillance and sequencing data, knowledge of how COVID-19 can evolve and mutate cannot be properly tracked, leaving everyone in the dark about possible new variants of concern and the best ways to keep people healthy and safe, Van Kerkhove said.
“The virus is still not predictable,” she said during a question-and-answer session organized by the WHO on November 14.
“I think that’s why we need good oversight, so people can watch this every day. … As public health professionals and scientists, we need access to this information.
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