Is Omicron the 'endgame' for the pandemic? The World Health Organization's top health experts offer conflicting outlooks

Is Omicron the 'endgame' for the pandemic? The World Health Organization's top health experts offer conflicting outlooks
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WHO Europe director Hans Kluge sits in an interview and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at a conference
WHO's top experts appeared to disagree on how Omicron might shape the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe and the world.(L) Johanna Geron/REUTERS and (R) Denis Balibouse/REUTERS
  • 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 WHO said it was "dangerous to assume" Omicron would be the last variant.

Top officials at the World Health Organization are expressing conflicting views this week on the likelihood that the Omicron variant's dominance might signal an end of the coronavirus pandemic.

WHO's director-general on Monday cautioned against assuming the pandemic was approaching an "endgame" and said it's "dangerous" to think Omicron would be the last variant.

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

"There are different scenarios for how the pandemic could play out," he said. "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."

His warning came with health experts and pundits raising hopes the more contagious yet apparently 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 quickly Omicron is spreading around the world, Kluge said there was likely to be "quite some weeks and months a global immunity" — attributable to both infections and vaccines — along with "lowering seasonality."

"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, per a Reuters tally. Omicron, which is thought to induce less severe sickness than the Delta variant but can still lead to hospitalization and death, is now the dominant strain of the virus in most European nations, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The top US infectious-disease expert, Dr. 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 had begun to fall.

The US reported about 222,000 COVID-19 cases Monday, about 1 1/2 weeks after the weekly average of daily recorded cases approached 800,000. Omicron now also makes up most COVID cases in the US.

Still, all three experts — Tedros, Kluge, and Fauci — urged caution and advised against overconfidence.

"There is a lot of talk about endemic," Kluge told AFP, adding that in the endemic phase "it is possible to predict what's going to happen."

"This virus," he continued, "has surprised us more than once, so we have to be very careful."

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

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.

"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."

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