Global COVID cases ebb amid testing blind-spot worries

COVID swab tester
COVID swab tester

US Army National Guard, A.J. Coyne / Flickr cc

After rising for 2 weeks, global cases declined again, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in its latest weekly snapshot of the pandemic, but it urged caution about interpreting trends, due to reduced testing in a number of countries.

In other global developments, the WHO today released its third strategic plan for battling the pandemic, along with a decade-long plan for improving genomic surveillance of pathogens.

WHO raises concerns about drops in testing

The world's COVID-19 cases dropped 14% last week, compared to the week before, with decreases seen across all of the WHO's regions. However, deaths rose 45%, primarily due to changes in how some countries define COVID deaths and retrospective adjustments from others.

Overall, about 10 million cases were reported to the WHO last week. The five countries reporting the most cases were South Korea, Germany, Vietnam, France, and Italy.

The WHO noted that recent case rises earlier this month occurred despite reduced testing in many countries, which it says is a sign that the virus is still circulating at very high levels. It warned that a decline in testing could lead to less robust data that makes it harder to track the virus and how it is spreading and evolving. The situation could impair how quickly countries can respond with targeted control measures to reduce hospitalizations and deaths.

In its weekly report, the WHO said the Omicron variant makes up 99.5% of sequenced samples. Officials added that they're monitoring recombinant viruses, including a BA.1-BA.2 version that was first observed in the United Kingdom and appears to be about 10% more transmissible than the Omicron's BA.2 subvariant.

Latest pandemic game plan

At a briefing today, WHO officials unveiled its third version of a strategy for fighting the pandemic, which spells out three scenarios for how the situation might unfold this year. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said the most likely scenario is that SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve but severity declines as populations build up immunity due to vaccination and infection.

"Periodic spikes in cases and deaths may occur as immunity wanes, which may require periodic boosting for vulnerable populations," he said, adding that the best-case scenario is the emergence of less severe variants, and the worst-case situation would be the emergence of a more virulent, highly transmissible variant.

Tedros said the world already has the key tools it needs to end the pandemic's acute phase this year, with equitable vaccination as the single most valuable tool for saving lives.

"Even as some high-income countries now roll out fourth doses for their populations, one third of the world’s population is yet to receive a single dose, including 83% of the population of Africa," he said.

Vaccine supplies have made their way to Africa, but some countries are struggling with efforts to immunize their population, which requires trained workers, supplies, cold-chain capabilities, and communication efforts. In a related development, the European Commission has contributed $17.8 million to help the WHO shore up vaccine campaigns in 15 African nations where only 15% of populations is vaccinated.

Also at today's briefing, Tedros announced the launch of a new WHO strategy to boost genomic surveillance of pathogens that have the capacity to trigger epidemics or pandemics. In a statement, the WHO said country capacity to conduct genomic surveillance is increasing steadily, rising from 54% in March 2021 to 68% by January 2022.

They added that even greater gains were made with public sharing of sequencing data.

The complexity of the process means not all countries can develop capabilities on their own, and new technology runs the risk of increasing inequities, one of targets of the new strategy.

Asian hot spots grapple with Omicron

China's daily COVID-19 total spiked to 8,655 new cases today, though about 82% were asymptomatic and mostly from Shanghai, where much of the city is on lockdown, and mass testing is under way.

Due to Shanghai's continuing surge of cases, officials started the second phase of a lockdown in some western districts 2 days early, according to Reuters.

In South Korea, where health officials saw signs of a peak last week, cases rose steeply again for the second straight day, with about 424,000 new cases reported today, according to Yonhap News. Daily deaths reached their second highest level, and the number of critically ill patients rose to a record high.

Health officials said the more transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant made up 56.3% of sequenced samples last week.

This week's top reads