Spain is again leading calls for governments to start treating Covid-19 as any other endemic respiratory virus, like seasonal flu, despite repeated warnings that the approach is premature from the World Health Organization (WHO).
With governments and populations worldwide keen for an end to the pandemic, discussion about when the virus might be reclassified has recently intensified.
‘Spain wants to lead this debate because it is timely and necessary to do so,’ Health Minister Carolina Darias said this week, adding that Spain has asked the European Centre for Disease Prevention (ECDC) to ‘study new strategies’ to deal with Covid.
The ECDC has advised countries to transition to more routine handling of Covid-19 after the acute phase of the pandemic is over. The agency said in a statement that more EU states in addition to Spain will want to adopt ‘a more long-term, sustainable surveillance approach’.
Last Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in a radio interview that the EU should soon start to consider treating Covid as an ‘endemic illness’ and not a pandemic, due to falling death rates and vaccination protection.
‘I believe that we have the conditions for, with precaution, slowly opening the debate at the technical level and at the level of health professionals, but also at the European level, to start evaluating the evolution of this disease with different parameters than we have until now,’ Sánchez told Cadena SER radio.
Spain is also currently working with scientific experts to eventually shift from ‘managing a pandemic to managing a disease which we hope science will reclassify as an endemic illness’, Sánchez said this week, reiterating his comments from last week.
The Spanish Health Ministry has said that it is too early to share any blueprints being drafted by its experts and advisers, but one proposal is to reportedly follow an existing model of ‘sentinel surveillance’ currently used in the EU for monitoring seasonal flu.
The strategy has been dubbed ‘flu-ization’ of Covid-19 by the Spanish media, although officials say that the systems for influenza will need to be adapted significantly to Coronavirus.
Spain has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates with 90.5% of its population over the age of 12 fully immunised. Also read: Covid-19 Vaccinations in Spain.
Although Omicron has triggered a surge in infections, there have been fewer deaths and lower rates of hospital admissions, with many governments easing restrictions, reducing isolation times and loosening border controls.,
The WHO, however, has said that despite reports of a higher degree of asymptomatic cases and lower proportion of hospitalisations for Omicron cases, it is still too early to treat the disease as endemic.
On Tuesday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted that the pandemic was ‘nowhere near over’, warning that new variants were still ‘likely to emerge’.
Speaking at a World Economic Forum panel on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases doctor in the USA, said Covid-19 could not be considered endemic until it drops to ‘a level that it doesn’t disrupt society’.
Meanwhile Marco Cavaleri, head of the vaccination strategy for the European Medicines Agency (EMA), said ‘we are indeed moving towards the virus becoming more endemic, but we cannot say we have already reached that status’.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that ‘as Covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance,’ whilst announcing that many restrictions were being lifted in England from 26 January.
Arguing ‘we must learn to live with Covid’ in a similar way to seasonal flu, British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government would set out a long-term plan for living with Coronavirus within months.
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