WHO says ability to track COVID variants declines as surveillance wanes

WHO says ability to track COVID variants declines as surveillance wanes

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The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that the ability to track COVID-19 variants and subvariants around the world is waning due to declining surveillance.

“With surveillance on the decline, the number of tests is decreasing, the number of sequences being conducted and shared is decreasing. And that limits our ability to assess known variants and subvariants… but also our ability to track and identify new ones,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID. “So that’s why it’s really important that we maintain surveillance activities.”

Speaking at a press conference, Van Kerkhove told reporters that part of the end of the pandemic is trying to reduce the spread of transmission.

“The more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it has to change. And this is something that we are deeply concerned about,” she said.

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In this photo illustration, the World Health Organization (WHO) logo is displayed on an Android phone with a COVID illustration in the background.

In this photo illustration, the World Health Organization (WHO) logo is displayed on an Android phone with a COVID illustration in the background.
(Photographic illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Although omicron is dominant worldwide, the agency is currently tracking 200 coronavirus substrains.

Van Kerkhove said the WHO is working with member states to “right size” the response to the virus as the world is still at risk from future variants.

“We expect future variants to be more transmissible. We expect future variants to potentially have more immune escape, which could make some of our countermeasures not as effective as they are now. But we don’t know if future variants will be more or less severe.” she said later.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while the pandemic is not over, the end is “in sight”.

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“Yes, we are in a better position than ever before. The number of weekly deaths from COVID-19 continues to decline and is now only 10% of what they were at their peak in January 2021,” he said.

World Health Organization technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, Maria van Kerkhove gestures during an interview with AFP in Geneva on October 13, 2020.

World Health Organization technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, Maria van Kerkhove gestures during an interview with AFP in Geneva on October 13, 2020.
(Photo by RICHARD JUILLIART/AFP via Getty Images)

“But 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many, when most of those deaths could be avoided,” Tedros noted.

Van Kerkhove said that while “we’re not there yet”, the WHO is very hopeful.

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“The reason we’re hopeful is because we have so many tools,” she continued. “We just need to ensure that all countries have access to them and that all countries have the policies in place to use them most effectively.”

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