COVID-19: WHO emphasizes critical importance of virus sequence sharing


“Since the peak of the Omicron wave, the number of sequences being shared has increased decreased by more than 90 percentand the number of countries sharing sequences has dropped by a third,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at his latest media briefing.

The WHO chief recalled that the first batch of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was shared with the world three years ago, enabling the development of tests and vaccines against the disease.

“We urge all countries to experience intense transmission now increase orderand to share those sequences,” he said.

Experts assess new variant

A WHO advisory group has published an assessment of the new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which first appeared last October.

Sequences have been reported from 38 countries, but mostly from the United States.

“Based on its genetic characteristics and early growth rate estimates, XBB.1.5 may contribute to an increase in incidencesaid the Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).

“To date, overall confidence in the assessment is low as growth benefit estimates come from only one country, the United States of America.”

Unacceptable death rate

Tedros also highlighted the importance of testingwhich is critical for both detecting variants and ensuring that those at risk receive adequate care.

Since February 2022, the number of COVID-19 deaths reported each week has fallen by nearly 90 percent, but has fluctuated between 10,000 and 14,000 since mid-September.

“The world cannot accept this number of deaths when we have the tools to prevent them,” he said.

Last week, 11,500 people worldwide died from COVID-19, but “this number is almost certainly an underestimate given China’s under-reporting of COVID-related deaths,” he added.

Countries are also being urged to provide better data on who dies from the disease. Currently, only 53 of the 194 countries provide data broken down by age and gender.

Most deaths are in high-risk groups, with people aged 65 and older accounting for nearly 90 percent of all deaths reported in the last six months of 2022.

©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

A mother in the city of Raqqa, Syria, collects medicines for her children suffering from diarrhea and also receives instructions on how to sterilize water to prevent cholera.

Widespread cholera outbreaks

Tedros began the briefing by celebrating the end of Uganda’s Ebola epidemic.

He also welcomed the adoption this week of a Security Council resolution extending the delivery of cross-border aid to northwestern Syria from Türkiye for another six months.

Syria, Haiti and Malawi are among 31 countries battling devastating cholera outbreaks that are both more widespread and more deadly than usual.

“Although we have had large cholera outbreaks before, we have never seen such a large number of simultaneous outbreaks,” said the WHO chief.

“The common denominator for many of these outbreaks is climate-related eventssuch as storms, floods and droughts.”

China’s involvement continues

The WHO continues to ask China for more information on the ongoing COVID-19 spike.

The UN agency is working with authorities to fill important gaps, including in understanding transition dynamics, the breakdown of increases or decreases in hospitalizations, virus sequencing and differences in mortality rates between urban and rural areas.

“The WHO still believes that deaths are underreported in China, and this has to do with the definitions used, but also the need for physicians and those reporting in the public health system to be encouraged to report these cases and not discourage them.” said Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director.

He also praised China’s efforts, citing measures such as expanding designated beds in intensive care units and prioritizing the use of antivirals in the early course of the disease.

“There is also a shift in the definition of COVID pneumonia as the reporting disease, to COVID infection as the main basis for disease reporting, and we hope this will encourage more reporting – and more reporting to the WHO of the actual situation on the ground in China,” Dr. Ryan said.

‘Long COVID’ burden

Meanwhile, more research is still needed to better understand the burden of the post-COVID-19 condition on human health worldwide.

While many people recover from the disease, some patients have persistent symptoms in many different body organs and for long periods of time, giving way to the condition, commonly known as “long COVID.”

Experts from across WHO collaborate with counterparts around the world in the different types of clinical treatment of heart care, brain health and respiratory health.

“What we’re focusing on is making sure it’s there recognition of post-COVID-19 condition, in which this can be described and analyzed,” says Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the bureau’s COVID-19 leader.

The WHO has already published a case definition for long COVID, which is being adapted to cover children, but she said: “There is still a lot more work to be done in this area, including recognition, research and rehabilitation.”

Mask indoors

The WHO has encouraged people everywhere to still wear masks, for example in crowded areas or in places where ventilation is poor or unknown.

Dr. Van Kerkhove explained that the transmission of the coronavirus depends on factors such as the distance between people, environment, ventilation, time spent in the specific location and mitigation measures in place.

“There are a number of other factors that are also important, but masks are one of the measures we recommend if you’re indoors when you can’t keep your distance,” she said.

“This is one of the recommendations that we continue to advise, and we are working with governments to tailor its use to the right kinds of contexts.”

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