As Denmark Scraps COVID Restrictions, WHO Urges Caution
Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, is expected to return to pre-pandemic life as the country scraps most COVID-19 restrictions.

The world is “sick and tired” of COVID-19, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged but warned that Omicron posed a substantial threat to global health, having caused 90 million infections in the past 10 weeks – more than all the cases recorded in 2021.

Tedros’s appeal came as Denmark lifted most COVID-19 restrictions including wearing masks this week despite registering over 40,000 new cases daily, with Norway and Sweden poised to follow suit. 

The UK eased many restrictions last month but kept masking, while South Africa’s Cabinet announced on Monday that people with asymptomatic COVID-19 no longer had to isolate and reduced quarantine days from 10 to seven.

Denmark’s rationale is that over 80% of its population is vaccinated, and that Omicron is substantially less infectious than previous variants.

But deaths in four of the WHO’s six regions have increased in the past week and Tedros urged countries to “protect their people using every tool in the toolkit” at a media briefing on Tuesday.

‘Premature to declare victory or surrender’

“It is premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory. This virus is dangerous and it continues to evolve,” warned Tedros, adding that  the WHO is currently tracking for sub-variants of Omicron.

Dr Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s lead on COVID-19, cautioned that “now is not the time to lift everything all at once”.

“We have always urged caution in applying interventions as well as lifting those interventions in a steady and slow way,” said Van Kerkhove, although she acknowledged that countries are in very different situations around the world, and there was no “one solution”. 

Responding to South Africa’s changes to its isolation policies, Van Kerkhove said while the WHO recommended isolation is to prevent onward transmission some countries had so many cases they had to shorten isolation period and quarantine period “because they need to keep operating”.

“Most people still transmit the [Omicron] virus right around the time they develop symptoms from about two days before symptom onset up through the first five to nine days if you’re mild. It can be longer if you have severe disease,” added Van Kerkhove.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove

Celebrate a new phase of disease control

Dr Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies, said that the Scandinavian countries had a very high vaccination rates and strong health systems.

Every country in the world was trying to calculate “how do we have maximum protection of our population while minimising the impact on our society and our economy”, added Ryan.

He urged them not to “follow blindly” the decisions of other countries but to make decisions “based on your current epidemiology, your demographics, the population of risk, your vaccination levels, your population immunity, your access to tools, the strength of your health service”.

He also said that countries also needed to allow individual choice: “There are many, many people in my own personal view, who will be well advised to continue wearing masks in crowded situations and public transport even if it’s not mandated by government”.

In addition, “communities need to understand that measures may have to be reintroduced in order to moderate transmission if there is an unexpected rise in transmission or a new variant emerges”

Ryan urged “flexibility, agility, the ability to adjust, making good decisions based on your situation, and being ready to change that if needed”.

“We should be in some ways, celebrating when countries get to another stage of disease control, but at the same time being cautious and know that not all paths are straight,” he added.

Omicron sub-variants

Dr Tedros said that the WHO was researching four sub-variants of Omicron, including BA.2 which is more infectious that the original variant (BA.1).

Van Kerkhove said that there was some evidence that the prevalence of BA.2 was increasing in countries including Denmark and in India but that “there’s not a lot of information that we have on this particular sub-variant yet”.

“There is a suggestion from some of the initial data on BA.2 that there’s a slight increase in growth rate above BA.1. But what beyond that the data is really quite limited.”

New SARS-CoV2 origins group report weeks away

Van Kerkhove confirmed that the new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) had already had six meetings since it was constituted in late November.

Made up of 27 people, the WHO Secretariat expected guidance from SAGO “in the next few weeks” on the way forward in trying to ascertain the origins of SARS-CO-V2.

They were working on three issues: developing a framework for the study of any emerging pathogen; looking at the origins of this particular pandemic, building upon previous missions that have gone to China, and thirdly, looking at all of the literature and evidence that exists to look at studies that have been conducted since the original team had returned form China last March. 

“This group is currently working on their first set of recommendations to WHO on what is needed next, focusing on the urgent needs in terms of the studies that are necessary,” said Van Kerkhove.


Image Credits: Febiyan/ Unsplash.

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