This is not the time to stop tracking COVID-19 – Tips & Results

WHO COVID technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove (centre) says it is crucial that surveillance systems “are not taken apart”.Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

From the way political leaders in many high-income countries speak and act, it’s easy to assume that keeping tabs on the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer worth it.

The pandemic may have killed more than 18 million people, disabled many more than that, and battered the global economy, yet surveillance and reporting on the movements of the virus are beginning to slow, just at a time when a highly contagious Subvariant of Omicron, BA. 2, is spreading around the world and the number of cases and hospitalizations are increasing again.

These cuts are not based on evidence. They are political and could have disastrous consequences for the world. Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19 at the World Health Organization (WHO), says it is crucial that “the systems that have been put in place for monitoring, for testing and for sequencing, are now strengthened so that they are not taken on Part”.

According to the editors of the Our World in Data website, the frequency of national reporting worldwide has fallen below five days a week for the first time since the first months of the pandemic. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still reports statewide data, but there are fewer real-time reports of deaths and infections at the local level. All but eight states have reduced to reporting data on five or fewer days per week. Florida announced last week that it would only report fortnightly.

The UK government’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard, one of the most comprehensive in the world, is halting its weekend updates on infections, mortality, hospitalizations and immunizations, consolidating Saturday and Sunday’s figures into Monday’s. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says it is part of plans to ‘live with COVID’

The downward trend in coverage is subtle, but reflects other signs of complacency about COVID-19. For example, the UK will no longer offer free diagnostic tests. Several of its data collection programs are also being phased out. REACT-1, a long-running random-test study, will lose its federal funding later this month. And ZOE, a mobile app that allows residents to log their COVID-19 symptoms, has also lost public funding. Both were invaluable for research and politics.

The United States and the United Kingdom are not alone. In many countries, the political mood is shifting towards a “new normal”. Of course, national budgets will be thinned as governments seek to increase public spending on fuel and food subsidies as the world shifts from managing the pandemic to managing the global fallout from the war in Ukraine. But scaling back virus surveillance now is short-sighted. It’s like stopping a course of antibiotics at the first sign of symptom relief: it increases the risk of the infection rebounding. A study published last week says the next variant could well be more dangerous than those currently in circulation (PV Markov et al. Nature Rev. Microbiol.; 2022).

Public health decisions must be based on the best available data. Limiting the ability to track and respond to the virus while most of the world remains unvaccinated makes those decisions less reliable. It will also limit people’s ability to make decisions about their own safety.

This is all the more galling as rollbacks of public health interventions have often been accompanied by the message that people should now be able to choose what action to take. For example, the CDC recommends that people at risk of serious complications from COVID-19 should “talk to their health care provider” about wearing a mask or ventilator during “moderate” rates of community transmission — just when the data for transmission becomes less accessible.

Researchers have been hard at work bringing different sources of data about the pandemic to the public through several famous dashboards. Tools like the WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard, Our World in Data and Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Dashboard have enabled governments, businesses and individuals to use the best available evidence to make decisions. By reducing the streams of data that feed these dashboards, governments are turning a blind eye to the danger. If this trend continues, the new normal will look a lot like the false comfort of ignorance.

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