In his first video briefing of the year, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed alarm about the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
“We continue to press China for more swift, frequent, and trustworthy data on hospitalizations and deaths, as well as more complete sequencing of viruses in real-time,” he said from Geneva.
WHO is worried about the threat to life in the world’s most populous nation and has emphasized the necessity of increasing vaccine coverage, including booster doses, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly. “With a circulation in China being so high and comprehensive data unavailable – as I stated last week – it is understandable that certain governments are implementing measures they believe will protect their citizens,” Tedros explained.
Concerned about the spread of the most recent COVID variations, a number of countries, including the United States, beginning tomorrow, have announced new COVID testing requirements for travelers from China seeking domestic admission.
Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s Director of Emergencies, emphasized the need for more information from Chinese officials later in the briefing. “We are aware that tracking hospital discharges, admissions, and usage of ICU (intensive care unit) facilities is frequently problematic in all nations,” he said.
In terms of hospital admissions, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and especially mortality, we feel that the current data from China understates the full burden of the disease. WHO has met with Chinese authorities at a high level during the past week to discuss the increase in cases and hospitalizations. Its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) met with Chinese specialists on Tuesday to address the situation.
Scientists from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention presented data on imported and locally acquired coronavirus infections during this symposium. The majority of viruses circulating in the country belong to two Omicron lineages, BA.5.2 and BF.7, which accounted for 97.5% of all local infections, together with a few other known Omicron sublineages.
“These variants are known and have been circulating in other countries, and the China CDC has not reported any new variants as of Wednesday,” the TAG-VE stated in a statement. To date, 773 sequences from mainland China have been submitted to the global science collaboration GISAID’s virus database.
The majority, 564, were gathered after December 1. Only 95 of these instances are marked as locally acquired, while 187 are imported and 261 “had no information provided.” Ninety-five percent of locally acquired cases belong to the two Omicron lineages.
This is consistent with genomes of Chinese travelers submitted to the GISAID EpiCoV database by other nations. According to the publicly available sequencing data, there are no new mutations or variants of recognized relevance. Tedros stated at the beginning of the briefing that the pandemic is already in its fourth year and, despite advances, remains a threat to health, economics, and civilizations.
“We are quite concerned about the present COVID-19 epidemiological picture, which includes both high transmissions in numerous regions of the globe and the rapid emergence of a recombinant sub-variant,” he said. Tedros said that COVID-19 was on the decline for the majority of 2021, citing causes such as increased immunizations worldwide and the discovery of new lifesaving antivirals.
However, there are still significant disparities in testing, treatment, and immunization access. We estimate that approximately 10,000 individuals die each week from COVID-19. “The actual death toll is probably far higher,” he warned. In addition, the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 is on the rise in the United States and Europe and has been discovered in close to 30 nations.
Initial detection of XBB.1.5 occurred in October 2022. According to Dr. Maria Van Kherkove, WHO’s Technical Lead for COVID-19, this subtype is the most transmissible to date.
She stated, “We do anticipate other waves of infection over the world, but this need not translate into additional waves of death because our defenses continue to be effective.” In the meantime, TAG-VE experts are also putting the finishing touches on a related risk assessment that will be published in the coming days.
Dr. Van Kherkove stressed the significance of maintaining global COVID-19 surveillance in order to follow subtypes known to be in circulation. More than 13 million instances of the disease were reported last month, but the WHO estimates the actual number is much higher.
“More worrisome, we’ve seen a 15% spike in deaths over the past month, and we know that this is an underestimation due to delays in reporting, the holiday season, and mixing,” Dr. Van Kherkovo stated. Tedros expressed optimism that the pandemic will be eradicated by 2023 in his speech.
“COVID-19 will undoubtedly be a huge topic of conversation, but I believe and hope that with the correct measures, this will be the year that the public health emergency formally ends,” he stated.
He also mentioned positive developments in Uganda, where an Ebola outbreak has been ongoing since September. Since November 27, no cases have been reported; if this trend continues, the outbreak will soon be declared over. Tedros stated that more information regarding WHO’s 75th-anniversary celebration will be released in the following weeks.