WHO warns ability to identify new Covid variants is diminishing as testing declines

The World Health Organization on Thursday warned that it is struggling to identify and track new Covid variants as governments roll back testing and surveillance, threatening the progress made in the fight against the virus.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said Covid is still circulating at an “incredibly intense level” around the world. The WHO is “deeply concerned” that the virus is evolving at a time when there is no longer robust testing in place to help rapidly identify new variants, van Kerkhove said.

“Our ability to track variants and subvariants around the world is diminishing because surveillance is declining,” Van Kerkhove told reporters during an update in Geneva. “That 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 on Thursday warned there’s 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 U.S. President Joe Biden’s assertion earlier this week that the pandemic had ended.

“We have spent two-and-a-half years in a long dark tunnel and we’re just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel, but it’s still a long way off and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that could trip us up if we don’t take care,” Tedros said.

The WHO is currently tracking about 200 omicron sublineages, van Kerkhove said. The global health body is keeping a close eye on omicron BA.2.75, BF.7, and BA.4.6 among other subvariants, she said. Those variants have started to gain a foothold in countries such as the U.S. where omicron BA.5, the fastest spreading variant yet, has been dominant for months.

Health authorities still aren’t able to accurately predict how big Covid surges will be from season to season, Van Kerkhove said. Some public health experts believe the virus will eventually behave similar to the flu, where there are manageable waves of infection during the fall and winter months.

“We don’t yet have predictability with SARS-CoV-2 like we have other types of pathogens where we expect a seasonality. We may get there, but we’re not there that. That’s the message — we’re not there yet,” van Kerkhove said.

Though the future is uncertain, Tedros said the world is in a significantly better position compared with any other point in the pandemic. Two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated, including three-quarters of health-care workers and older people, he said

Weekly Covid deaths have continued to decline dramatically across all regions of the world and are now 10% of the pandemic’s peak in January 2021, according to WHO data. More than 9,800 people died from Covid during the week ending Sept. 18, down 17% from the prior week.

“We are in a significantly better position than we have ever been. 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 these deaths could be prevented.”