WHO sees COVID posing similar threat to flu this year

The last COVID-19 test is performed on a person at a COVID test center in Tiel, on March 17, 2023 before it closes. —AFP

GENEVA: The Covid-19 pandemic could settle in this year to a point where it poses a flu-like threat, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

The WHO said it was confident it would be able to declare an end to the emergency in 2023, saying it had growing hope that the pandemic phase of the virus would end.

Last weekend marked three years since the United Nations health agency first described the pandemic situation – although WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insists countries should have taken action weeks earlier.

“I think we’re getting to this point where we can look at COVID-19 the same way we look at seasonal flu,” WHO emergency director Michael Ryan told a news conference. .

“A health threat, a virus that will continue to kill. But a virus that does not disrupt our society or our hospital systems, and I believe that will come, as Tedros said this year.”

The WHO chief said the world is in a much better position now than it has been at any time during the pandemic.

“I am confident that this year we can say that COVID-19 is over as a public health emergency of international concern (USPPI),” he said.

5,000 deaths per week

The WHO declared a USPPI – the highest level of alarm it could sound – on January 30, 2020, when outside of China fewer than 100 cases and no deaths had been reported.

But it wasn’t until Tedros described the worsening situation as a pandemic on March 11 that year that many countries seemed to realize the danger.

“Three years later, almost seven million deaths from COVID-19 have been reported, although we know the true number of deaths is much higher.”

He rejoiced that, for the first time, the weekly number of reported deaths over the past four weeks was lower than when he first described COVID-19 as a pandemic.

But he said the more than 5,000 reported deaths per week were 5,000 too many for a preventable and treatable disease.

Data emerges

The first infections with the new coronavirus were recorded at the end of 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

“Even as we grow increasingly optimistic about the end of the pandemic, the question of how it started remains unanswered,” Tedros said, as he turned to the data that has recently come to light regarding the early days of the pandemic.

The data, from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, relates to samples taken from the Huanan market in Wuhan, in 2020.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID, said she showed molecular evidence of animals being sold in the market, including animals susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. 19.

The information was posted to the global science initiative GISAID database in late January, then deleted again – but not before some scientists downloaded and analyzed it, and informed the WHO over the weekend. end last.

“This data could have – and should have – been shared three years ago,” Tedros lamented.

“We continue to call on China to be transparent in sharing data, to conduct necessary investigations and to share results.”

Van Kerkhove said all the theories about where the outbreak started remain on the table.

They include entry into the human population via a bat, an intermediate animal host or via a biosecurity loophole in a laboratory, she said.

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