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COVID-19: WHO allays fears as XBB.1.5 variant spreads to Europe

Head of the World Health Organisation for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, says the ongoing COVID-19 surge in China is not expected to significantly impact the European region.

Hans Kluge
WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge

Kluge, in a statement on Tuesday, January 10, 2923, explained that this was because the two variants circulating in China were already present in European countries, according to data provided by the Chinese authorities.

“We share the current view of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) that the ongoing surge in China is not anticipated to significantly impact the COVID-19 epidemiological situation in the WHO European Region at this time,” said Kluge.

The WHO senior official acknowledged that China had shared virus sequencing information, but he appealed for more detailed and regular information, especially concerning local epidemiology and variants to better assess the evolving situation.

Kluge also said travel restrictions by European countries on visitors from China were not unreasonable, “while we are waiting for more detailed information that is shared through publicly available databases.”

But he said it was important for the precautionary travel measures being introduced by European countries to be rooted in science, to be proportionate and non-discriminatory.

The message comes as Chinese embassies suspended issuing new visas for South Koreans and Japanese visitors on Tuesday. The announcement covered tourist, business and some other visa categories.

The move appears to be in response to COVID-19 testing requirements recently imposed by those countries on travellers from China.

A notice posted in Seoul reportedly said the ban would continue until South Korea lifted its “discriminatory entry measures” against China.

At least 10 countries in Europe, North America and Asia have announced new virus testing requirements for travellers from China, with officials expressing concern about a lack of adequate information about rapidly spreading virus outbreaks in China.

In two further messages to the WHO European Region, Kluge warned against countries greatly reducing their surveillance capacity for COVID-19.

In the first five weeks of 2022, variant information on 1.2 million cases was submitted as part of weekly surveillance data to the WHO and the ECDC.

However, this declined to about 90,000 cases in the last five weeks of the year.

Kluge stressed that countries must build upon the lessons learned over the last three years and be able to anticipate, detect and respond in time to SARS-CoV-2, and any emerging health threat.

He commended European countries, including Denmark, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, that have maintained strong genomic surveillance.

He pointed out that their recent data had started to indicate the growing presence of the new XBB.1.5 recombinant virus, derived from the Omicron variant, that had already been spreading rapidly across the United States.

The new strain is being “picked up in small, but growing numbers, and we are working to assess its potential impact.

“With many countries grappling with overstretched health systems, shortages in essential medicines and an exhausted health workforce – we cannot afford more pressures on our health systems,” he said.

Kluge urged countries across Europe and Central Asia to step up efforts to put effective strategies in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 and avoid being complacent.

By Cecilia Ologunagba

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