The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that conditions remain ideal for more coronavirus variants to emerge and that it is dangerous to assume Omicron is the last one or that “we are in the endgame”.
But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, also said the acute phase of the pandemic could still end this year – if some key targets are met.
Dr Tedros laid out on Monday an array of achievements and concerns in global health over issues such as reducing tobacco use, fighting resistance to anti-microbial treatments, and risks of climate change on human health.
But he said “ending the acute phase of the pandemic must remain our collective priority”.
“There are different scenarios for how the pandemic could play out and how the acute phase could end. But it’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame,” Dr Tedros told the start of a WHO executive board meeting.
“On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
But he insisted that “we can end Covid-19 as a global health emergency, and we can do it this year”, by reaching goals such as the WHO’s target to vaccinate 70% of the population of each country by the middle of this year, with a focus on people who are at the highest risk of Covid-19, and improving testing and sequencing rates to track the virus and its emerging variants more closely.
“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, he 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.”
In stark terms, Dr Tedros also appealed for strengthening of the WHO and increasing funding for it to help stave off health crises.
“Let me put it plainly: If the current funding model continues, WHO is being set up to fail. The paradigm shift in world health that is needed now must be matched by a paradigm shift in funding the world’s health organisation.”