The head of the World Health Organization warned Tuesday that it’s too early to throw in the towel on the pandemic and cautioned that the now-dominant omicron strain, while less lethal than other variants, still can result in high-risk illness.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, noted that omicron has already infected nearly 90 million people since it was first brought to light by researchers in South Africa in November, more COVID-19 cases than were counted in all of 2020. And now daily death numbers are climbing in most of the world, including the U.S.
“‘We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth.’”
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros told reporters at a briefing that the virus “is dangerous and continues to evolve before our very eyes.”
He made the remarks after Denmark became the first European Union country to drop all of its COVID restrictions — including face masks, vaccine passes and limited opening hours — even as it is seeing record numbers of cases.
Other countries have made noises about following suit. And in the U.S. the governors of several states have been pushing for a shift to treating COVID as an endemic disease and no longer a pandemic, meaning Americans learn to live with it.
“It is premature,” said Tedros, “for any country to either surrender or to declare victory.”
Omicron has proved resistant to vaccines and caused many breakthrough cases in people who are vaccinated and even among those who have had a booster. But those cases tend to be mild and even asymptomatic. Most serious disease and death is happening in unvaccinated people.
Tedros stressed he was not calling for fresh lockdowns but urged countries to continue to follow mitigation measures and to track emerging variants, including the omicron subvariant BA.2, which appears even more transmissible than the original omicron, identified as BA.1.
“We can’t fight this virus if we don’t know what it’s doing,” he said.
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