As virus spreads ‘freely’ COVID-19 ‘nowhere near over’: WHO

Rising COVID-19 cases are not only putting further pressure on already stretched health systems and workers but also triggering an “increasing trend of deaths”, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists at the regular weekly press briefing on Tuesday.

He reported that the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 last Friday concluded that “the virus remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern”.

And while acknowledging that we are in a much better position than at the beginning of the pandemic, he reminded that new waves demonstrate the COVID-19 pandemic “is nowhere near over”.

Tedros outlined interlinked challenges presented now by the virus, beginning with sub-variants of Omicron, like BA.4 and BA.5, which continue to drive waves of cases, hospitalizations and deaths globally.

He observed that reduced surveillance, including testing and sequencing, has made it increasingly difficult to assess the impact of variants on transmission, disease characteristics, and the effectiveness of measures to counter the disease.

Tedros also pointed to diagnostics, treatments and vaccines that are not being deployed effectively.

“The virus is running freely, and countries are not effectively managing the disease burden based on their capacity, in terms of both hospitalization for acute cases and the expanding number of people with post COVID-19 condition, often referred to as long-COVID,” he said.

He highlighted a disconnect in COVID-19 risk perception between scientific communities, political leaders and the general public, describing it as “a dual challenge of communicating risk and building community trust in health tools and public health social measures like masking, distancing and ventilation”.

The WHO chief argued that we should not take for granted tools that have prevented infections, hospitalizations and deaths and must continue to employ masking, improved ventilation and testing and treatment protocols.

He underscored the importance during next week’s G-20 finance ministers meeting, of governments financing WHO and the vaccine equity mechanism, the ACT-Accelerator; reviewing and adjusting COVID-19 response plans based on current epidemiology; reversing the reduction in surveillance and testing; and effectively share anti-virals.

“Planning and tackling COVID-19 should also go hand-in-hand with vaccinating for killer diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhoea,” Tedros underscored. “It’s not a question of either/or, it’s possible to do both”.

Battling monkeypox

Turning to monkeypox, the WHO chief told journalists in Geneva that there are currently 9,200 cases throughout 63 countries,

Next week the Emergency Committee for the disease will reconvene to examine trends, the success so far of countermeasures and next steps tackling the outbreak.

In the meantime, WHO continues to battle the stigma around the virus, coordinate vaccine sharing, and drive forward research and development.

“I again stress that we must work to stop onward transmission and advise governments to implement contact tracing to help track and stem the virus as well as to assist people in isolation,” Tedros highlighted.