More than two years since the first SARS-CoV-2 infections were reported, the COVID-19 pandemic remains an acute global emergency. In this Strategic Preparedness, Readiness and Response plan for 2022, WHO sets out a number of key strategic adjustments that, if implemented rapidly and consistently at national, regional, and global levels, will enable the world to end the acute phase of the pandemic.
The plan includes three possible scenarios for how the virus might evolve in the coming year.
In the base-case scenario, which serves as the WHO's working model, the virus causes less severe outbreaks with periodic spikes in transmission as immunity wanes. Booster shots might be needed for those most at risk. The virus would likely fall into a seasonal pattern, with peaks in colder months, similar to influenza.
In the WHO's rosier, best-case scenario, future variants would be "significantly less severe", protection from severe disease would be long-lasting, without the need for future boosting or significant changes to current vaccines.
In the worst-case scenario, the virus transforms into a new, highly transmissible and deadly threat. In this scenario, vaccines would be less effective and immunity from severe disease and death would wane rapidly, requiring significant changes to current vaccines a broad campaign of booster shots for vulnerable groups.
To help end the emergency, WHO called on countries to continue or increase virus surveillance capabilities to allow for early warning signs of significant changes in the virus. It also called for improved detection of long COVID, to track and reduce long-term disability after the pandemic has ended.
Countries also must continue to do diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2, which helps identify individual cases and guide community-level decision making. Countries also must track virus evolution within animal populations, according to the WHO.
The WHO continues to promote the goal of vaccinating 70% of the world against COVID, with a focus on those most vulnerable to severe outcomes.
The report acknowledges that current vaccines are proving less effective than hoped in reducing the transmission of the Omicron variant, but says the target still remains relevant.