Reported cases of COVID-19 have doubled globally in the last six weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday.
The increase in cases is being driven mainly by the highly contagious BA.5 subvariant of Omicron — a strain the WHO says is the “most transmissible variant detected yet.”
The number of deaths linked to COVID-19 is also increasing, but not as rapidly as case numbers at this time. But more cases mean countries should expect to see more hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“We have said consistently that this virus will continue to evolve and we must be ready for whatever it throws at us,” he said during a briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.
“That could be a new version of the variant we already know or something completely new.”
For any future variant to become widespread, it must be more transmissible than previous variants, but it’s impossible to predict how deadly future strains of the virus will be, Tedros said.
That’s why countries should be ready to respond, he warned.
Tedros also raised concern about the fact many countries have moved away from pandemic precautions and surveillance.
WHO has repeatedly raised concern in recent weeks about countries that have reduced testing and sequencing, which has made it increasingly challenging to determine not only the scope of the outbreak, but also the impact of variants on transmission and disease characteristics. It also makes it harder to assess the effectiveness of measures to counter the disease, WHO says.
“Countries that have dismantled some parts of their pandemic response systems are taking a huge risk,” Tedros said Wednesday.
“All countries have gaps. Now is the time — when hospitals are not full — for all countries to address those gaps in surveillance, immunity, workforce supplies and resilience.”
In virtually all provinces in Canada, testing for COVID-19 has been reduced or limited to certain populations and rapid tests completed by individuals at home are largely not being captured in provincial data.
However, federal public health officials have been increasingly working with provincial, territorial and municipal governments to gather wastewater data to assess trends in COVID-19 activity in Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told Global News in a recent statement.
“In areas with ongoing transmission, wastewater data provides trends in transmission (such as the recent variant of concern), and helps monitor for resurgences in cases as public health measures are adjusted,” PHAC said in its statement.
“Since wastewater testing is different than clinical testing to diagnose active COVID-19 infections, it provides an additional, independent measure of community transmission.”
WHO says worldwide health officials and countries should expect to see continued waves of infection, but stressed hospitalizations and deaths need not necessarily follow.
Vaccines, tests and therapeutics, such as the antiviral medication Paxlovid as well as public health measures, are tools that all countries can use to help mitigate the impact of outbreaks, Tedros said.
Improved vaccines are also needed that can better protect against transmission of the virus, as COVID-19 variants and subvariants have found ways to evade immunity from vaccines and infection, even as they protect against severe infection and death, Tedros added.
And if new, better vaccines do emerge, they must be distributed more fairly around the world, he said.
“We cannot afford the same horrific inequity that strained the rollout of vaccines last year.”