The Omicron variant could see the COVID-19 pandemic enter a new phase of “stabilization and normalization,” a top World Health Organization official said Monday.
Dr. Hans Kluge, head of WHO’s European region, said in a statement that, while countries should not yet let their guards down, Omicron offered plausible hope for a return to normalcy with continued vaccination and natural immunity.
He pointed to how the latest variant appeared to “cause much less severe disease” than Delta — even though Omicron is highly transmissible and has been driving up case counts globally.
“The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention,” he wrote.
Despite offering a glimmer of hope the pandemic could be nearing the end, Kluge lamented “huge disparities” in access to vaccines, arguing that countries with lower vaccination rates could allow the virus to adapt — and possibly lead to new variants.
“If 2021 was the year of vaccine production, 2022 must be the year of vaccine equity in the European Region and beyond,” Kluge said.
“Too many people who need the vaccine remain unvaccinated. This is helping to drive transmission, prolonging the pandemic and increasing the likelihood of new variants.”
He added that it was almost a given that new “variants will emerge and return” given the high number of current infections, waning immunity and winter seasonality.
But Kluge was hopeful a spike in vaccinations and strong surveillance would mean “a new wave could no longer require the return to pandemic-era, population-wide lockdowns or similar measures” seen over the last two years.
His comments came as WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus offered a less hopeful note, warning that conditions remained ideal for more variants to emerge.
He told a WHO executive board that it was dangerous to assume Omicron was the last variant or that “we are in the endgame” — but said the acute phase of the pandemic could potentially end this year if some key targets were met.
Vaccinating 70 percent of each country’s population by mid-2022 and improving testing and sequencing rates to track the virus were among some of WHO’s targets, the health official said.
“It’s true that we will be living with COVID for the foreseeable future and that we will need to learn to manage it through a sustained and integrated system for acute respiratory diseases” to help prepare for future pandemics, Tedros said.
“But learning to live with COVID cannot mean that we give this virus a free ride. It cannot mean that we accept almost 50,000 deaths a week from a preventable and treatable disease.”
With Post wires
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