The coronavirus pandemic is by no means over, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized for the umpteenth time Sunday as he warned about relaxed public health measures and monitoring.
“This virus has surprised us at every turn – a storm that has torn through communities again and again, and we still can’t predict its path, or its intensity,” Tedros said at the opening of the 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva. “We lower our guard at our peril.”
Cases may be declining worldwide, especially since the omicron wave peaked earlier this year, but that does not mean the pandemic is over, he said.
“There’s no question we have made progress, of course we have: 60% of the world’s population is vaccinated, helping to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, allowing health systems to cope, and societies to reopen,” he said. “But it’s not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”
Several factors leave the world vulnerable, he noted. With testing on the downswing and a lack of genetic sequencing, there is no way to see what the virus is doing, for one. And having 1 billion people unvaccinated in lower-income countries means almost as many opportunities for more variants to arise. Testing rates have plummeted, and yet the number of confirmed, recorded cases are rising anyway, Tedros said.
“Increasing transmission means more deaths, especially among the unvaccinated, and more risk of a new variant emerging,” he said. “Declining testing and sequencing means we are blinding ourselves to the evolution of the virus.”
Tedros issued a similar warning almost exactly a year ago, in May 2021, calling it a “monumental error” to treat the coronavirus pandemic as if it were over at that stage.
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
In January of this year, he warned, again, that there is no pandemic “endgame,” but there could be an end to the acute phase, if the world meets some key public health targets.
New omicron variants have indeed emerged, and testing and vaccination have not kept pace, Tedros noted Sunday. At the same time, people are ripping off masks and flocking to crowded indoor gatherings.
“In many countries, all restrictions have been lifted, and life looks much like it did before the pandemic,” Tedros said Sunday. “So is it over? No, it’s most certainly not over.”
Reported cases are increasing in nearly 70 countries worldwide, even as testing rates have plummeted, he said. Just 57 countries, mainly the wealthiest, have vaccinated 70% of their population.
Reasons range from a lack of political will, gaps in operational or financial capacity and vaccine hesitancy fueled by misinformation and disinformation, he said.
“The pandemic will not magically disappear,” he said. “But we can end it. We have the knowledge. We have the tools. Science has given us the upper hand.”