Omicron sub-variants are driving large spikes in COVID-19 cases across the world but with countries having reduced testing and sequencing, scientists are finding it increasingly difficult to track the virus, the World Health Organization warned Tuesday.
“The virus is running freely and countries are not effectively managing the disease burden,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing.
Reporting back on the most recent meeting of the WHO’s emergency committee, Tedros said its members were concerned about reduced COVID-19 surveillance, which was “making it increasingly difficult to assess the impact of variants” on virus transmission and the characteristics of the disease. Diagnostics, treatments and vaccines are also not being deployed effectively, he said.
The WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said the organization’s own ability to assess variants had reduced as countries were supplying fewer genetic sequences to the organization. At the same time, she said, high rates of infection were giving the virus ample opportunities to evolve and escape the protection against infection gained through vaccination or prior infection — as seen in the rapid spread of the BA.5 sub-variant in recent weeks.
Even as cases rise in Europe, politicians have expressed little appetite for a return to stringent measures — let alone going back into lockdown — after dismantling restrictions earlier this year. However, in the U.K., Syed Kamall, a minister in the health department, has admitted that if rising cases affected the attempt to reduce the health service’s backlog of patients awaiting treatment, “clearly measures may well have to be introduced.”
Cases have been rising exponentially in many European countries, reminiscent of previous waves. In Italy, cases are back at the level they were in February and are on a sharp upward trajectory. In France, the figures show a return to early April highs.
The European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control urged countries on Monday to start providing second booster doses to older populations due to the upward trend in hospital admissions.