The ability to identify new COVID variants is diminishing, as testing declines.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials said they are struggling to identify and track new COVID variants, as testing and surveillance is rolled back in many countries. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said the virus is spreading rapidly and continues to evolve even as deaths from the disease decline. The WHO is currently monitoring about 200 Omicron sub-lineages, she said.
At the moment BA.5 and even further sub-variants of BA.5 are being tracked. Others on their radar include BA.2.75 and further sub-variants of that, as well as BA.4.6 and BF.7 – which is a variant of BA.5.
Maria Van Kerkhove urged individuals and Governments to take measures to reduce the spread of the disease. “The more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it has to change,” she said.
Widely-expected COVID variant resurgence
Scientists and health authorities have been bracing for a widely-expected resurgence in the virus nationwide driven by a new variant, in line with the previous two winter seasons that saw deadly pandemic waves sweep the country.
Despite President Biden declaring this month that the pandemic “had ended”, authorities have also urged Americans to seek out updated boosters redesigned to guard against the BA.4 and BA.5 variants.
More than 4 million Americans have received the updated shots to date. The pace of new vaccine doses administered has soared to the fastest pace since April, CDC data shows, but remains slower than at this time last year.
Leaders remain hopeful that updated shots will bring us the protection we need through October, November, December to prevent yet another wave that shut downs.
But data on how effective the updated shots are in humans is not yet available, so it remains unclear what effect the shots could have on the course of the pandemic.
Limitations due to decreased testing
The ability to track variants and sub-variants around the world is diminishing because surveillance is declining. That limits scientists’ ability to assess the known variants and sub-variants but also their ability to track and identify new ones.
WHO Director, Dr. 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.”
“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.
Health authorities still aren’t able to accurately predict the impact of a COVID surge from season to season. 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’s the message – we’re not there yet.
Though the future is uncertain, Tedros said the world is in a “significantly better position” than at any other point during 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 ended Sept. 18, down 17% from the prior week.
“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.”
What is the solution? Get tested. Stay vaccinated. Seek treatment.
Understanding the infinite potential of COVID variants helps scientists track and develop vaccines against another potentially deadly version of the disease. The pandemic cannot be ended until we can ensure immunity against it.
A simple way to achieve this would be to get tested! Stay mindful of following the standard recommended precautions when interacting with the public.
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