The World Health Organization says it is concerned about the “risk to life” in China amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, while in Europe and the United States, the sub-variant of Omicron XBB.1.5 is spreading fast.
On Wednesday, the WHO confirmed XBB.1.5 is the most transmissible variant to date, but has so far said it does not appear to cause more severe disease.
It evolved from Omicron’s XBB variant, itself an amalgamation of two different BA.2 variants – BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75.
Speaking at a press conference, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the UN agency was “closely monitoring and assessing the risk” of XBB.1.5.
“We are truly concerned about the current epidemiological picture of COVID-19, with both intense transmission in multiple parts of the world and a rapidly spreading recombinant subvariant.”
More than 40% of covid cases in the United States are now caused by the XBB.1.5 variant and scientists have warned that this could be the one to “watch out” this year.
It was initially detected in October 2022 and has now been identified in over 25 countries including the UK.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 in China is primarily driven by Omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7, which together account for 97.5% of all local infections.
Dr Mike Ryan, WHO emergency director, said China’s COVID data does not paint an accurate picture of the situation there and under-represents the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease. .
Last month, China tightened its definition to classify deaths as COVID-related, opting to only count those involving pneumonia or respiratory failure.
This has raised concerns among global health experts.
The WHO says deaths should be attributed to COVID if they result from “clinically compatible disease” in a patient with probable or confirmed infection – and no other unrelated cause of death is involved, such as a trauma.
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China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy reversal.
But many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts are predicting at least one million COVID-related deaths in China this year without urgent action.
Dr Tedros said the WHO reiterated to China “the importance of vaccination, including booster doses to protect against hospitalization, serious illness and death”.
“We continue to ask China for faster, more regular and reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths, as well as more complete real-time viral sequencing,” he said.
The WHO said the Chinese data showing the cases were mainly the BA.5.2 and BF.7 subvariants, provided by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was consistent with the genomes of travelers from China. submitted by other countries.
No new variants or mutations of known significance were noted in the data.
On Saturday, England joined a growing list of countries requiring a negative COVID test before departure for travelers from China.