Why has WHO warned countries not to treat Covid-19 as endemic?

The WHO's advice on how countries should treat the virus stems from the agency's need to take a broader perspective. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Many countries around the world, including Singapore, are taking steps towards living with Covid-19.

But as recently as Jan 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against treating the virus as endemic, especially since the Omicron situation has not yet stabilised.

What explains this apparent difference in views?

The main reason is that the world as a whole is not yet ready to live with the virus, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Only a handful of developed countries have the ability to protect their people against the virus, he said. Even among these, vaccination and booster take-up rates may not be high enough to confer sufficient protection.

"The WHO fears countries deciding to emulate this posture and lift most of the social and community measures before the vaccination uptake and hospital resources can be readied for it," Prof Teo said. "This will lead to a lot more infections and a lot more deaths."

Since the highly transmissible Omicron variant emerged late last year, Covid-19 cases have shot up to an all-time high worldwide. On Saturday (Jan 15), the seven-day rolling average of daily new confirmed cases per million people stood at 374.13.

This is more than three times higher than the previous global peak when the Delta variant was on the rise, said Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the Saw Swee Hock School.

"However, the dominance of Omicron and high vaccination rates... have combined to make the severity substantially less for the typical person getting infected, and the total severity across the global population less than in previous, smaller waves," he said.

Professor Laurent Renia, who specialises in infectious diseases at the Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, said the WHO's advice on how countries should treat the virus stems from the agency's need to take a broader perspective.

"It is its mandate," he said. "It is acutely aware that in many parts of the world - Africa, South America, and even in Asia - people have yet to be vaccinated. So from the WHO's perspective, there is a still a lot to do."

This article has been edited to reflect the correct school Professor Laurent Renia comes from.

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