January 30, 2023

Is Omicron the COVID-19 ‘Endgame’? WHO Experts Give Differing Views

  • WHO’s top experts seem to disagree on whether Omicron could spell the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On Sunday, WHO’s regional director for Europe suggested the variant might offer widespread immunity.
  • But on Monday, the head of the WHO said it was “dangerous to assume” Omicron would be the last variant.

Top officials at the World Health Organization expressed conflicting views on whether Omicron’s dominance signals a possible end of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization Director-General on Monday cautioned against assuming that the pandemic is approaching an “endgame” and said it’s “dangerous” to believe now that Omicron will be the last variant.

“On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a briefing in Geneva.

“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,” he said.

His warning comes as health experts and pundits raised hopes that the more contagious yet reportedly milder Omicron variant could signal the final stretch of the pandemic’s acute period.

The day before, WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge, told Agence France Presse that “it’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame.”

Given how Omicron is sweeping across Europe, the region would likely experience “quite some weeks and months a global immunity” attributable to immunity from both infections and the vaccines and “lowering seasonality,” Kluge said.

“We anticipate that there will be a period of quiet before COVID-19 may come back towards the end of the year, but not necessarily the pandemic coming back,” Kluge added.

Europe has reported nearly 115 million COVID infections among its 750 million residents. Omicron, which is thought to induce less severe sickness than Delta but can still lead to hospitalization and death, is now the dominant strain of the virus in most European nations, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

Top US health expert Anthony Fauci also presented a rosier outlook for Americans, saying on Sunday he was “confident as you can be” that Omicron would peak in most states by mid-February.

He told ABC’s “This Week” that the US would start seeing a “turnaround” with the pandemic as daily cases have begun to fall.

The US reported around 222,000 COVID-19 cases on Monday, compared to when cases soared to a record 1.3 million on January 10. Omicron now also makes up most COVID cases in the US.

Still, all three experts – Tedros, Kluge, and Fauci – urged caution and advised against being overconfident.

“There is a lot of talk about endemic, but endemic means … that it is possible to predict what’s going to happen. This virus has surprised us more than once, so we have to be very careful,” Kluge told AFP.

Tedros did offer some bullishness on the pandemic, saying that COVID-19 might no longer be a global health emergency in 2022 if the world rallies to hit the WHO’s goals, which include vaccinating 70% of each country’s populace and closely tracking the spread of the virus to catch new variants.

The WHO has long condemned the massive gap in vaccine access between poor and rich countries. Tedros repeatedly warned that leaving large populations unvaccinated around the world would affect every nation’s progress against the pandemic.

“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, which will provide a platform for preparedness 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.”