The World Health Organization said Tuesday that weekly new Covid deaths have fallen to their lowest level since March 2020, but warned a global drop in testing for the virus could hamper its efforts to fight the pandemic.
The world recorded 15,668 new deaths within the last seven days, with Europe and America representing the majority of this number according to WHO data. The number dropped from more than 18,000 new deaths reported during the week ending April 17, the WHO’s latest epidemiological report said.
Both new deaths and cases recorded worldwide have fallen since the end of March, the report said.
The drop in deaths is good news, as “we must be greeted with some caution,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a news conference. He warned that several countries have reduced Covid testing, limiting the WHO’s ability to track the virus’ effects and patterns of transmission and development.
“This virus will not go away just because countries stopped looking for it. It’s still spreading, it’s still changing, and it’s still killing,” Tedros said. “Even though deaths are declining, we still do not understand the long-term consequences of infection in those who survive. When it comes to a deadly virus, ignorance is not bliss.”
He said the WHO urges all countries to maintain Covid monitoring systems, which include testing and genome sequencing.
Global Covid test rates have fallen by 70% to 90% in the last four months, said Dr. Bill Rodriguez, CEO of the global diagnostic nonprofit FIND.
Rodriguez, who was a guest expert at the briefing, said the decline in testing is undermining the world’s ability to treat Covid with new therapeutic agents.
Pfizer’s Paxlovid, for example, is an oral antiviral treatment that requires “rapid and accurate testing” before administration, which is recommended within five days of the onset of symptoms, according to Tedros. He said testing is one of several challenges that limit the effect of the treatment, which is otherwise easy to administer and can prevent hospitalizations.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical director at Covid-19, also said the global drop in tests gives her “some confidence in the number of cases being reported around the world.”
“The mere fact that we’ve had massive changes in testing strategies and huge reductions in the number of tests being used around the world, we have very little confidence in what we’re actually seeing,” Van Kerkhove said.
The world reported over 4 million new cases within the last seven days, according to WHO data. That number has dropped from the more than 5 million new cases reported worldwide during the week ending April 17, the WHO’s latest epidemiological report said.
Van Kerkhove said the lack of testing limits the world’s ability to monitor newer variants of concern, especially sub-pedigrees of the omicron variant.
The more infectious omicron BA.2 subvariant is now the dominant strain worldwide and has fueled new Covid rises in Europe and China, battling its worst outbreak since 2020.
BA.2 is also spreading rapidly across the United States, representing 68.1% of all cases circulating in the country during the week ending April 23, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another sub-variant, BA.2.12.1, is also gaining ground in the US, accounting for 28.7% of new cases, according to CDC data.
“The uncertainty we have about the next variant will remain a major cause for concern for us because we have to plan for many different types of scenarios,” Van Kerkhove said.
– CNBC’s Spencer Kimball contributed to this report
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