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Pandemic 'nowhere near over' with new surges

The public health experts who declared COVID-19 was a pandemic said it isn't over yet because new variants "may present an even greater health threat."

A billboard in Morocco, where a state of health emergency has been in force since March 2020
A billboard in Morocco, where a state of health emergency has been in force since March 2020 (AN/M. Hobl)

GENEVA (AN) — The public health experts who first declared COVID-19 a pandemic said it isn't over yet and the spread of new variants "may present an even greater health threat."

A committee of experts chaired by French surgeon Dr. Didier Houssin "unanimously agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic still meets the criteria of an extraordinary event that continues to adversely impact the health of the world’s population," the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "concurs with the advice offered" by the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee for COVID-19 after its Friday afternoon videoconference — its 12th private meeting since January 2020, soon after the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China — and "determines that the event continues to constitute" an international public health emergency that needs a coordinated response, according to WHO.

Tedros told a media briefing he's concerned that the recent rise in coronavirus cases and deaths is overburdening health care systems just as monkeypox is also increasing with 9,200 cases reported in 63 nations. Though the world is in "a much better position" than at the start of the pandemic, he said, the safe and effective tools that prevent infections, hospitalizations and deaths should not be taken for granted.

"New waves of the virus demonstrate again that the COVID-19 is nowhere near over. As the virus pushes at us, we must push back," Tedros said.

"The virus is running freely and countries are not effectively managing the disease burden based on their capacity, in terms of both hospitalization for acute cases and the expanding number of people with post covid-19 condition — often referred to as long-covid," he said. "There is a major disconnect in COVID-19 risk perception between scientific communities, political leaders and the general public."

Dealing with 'pandemic fatigue'

Over the past two weeks, cases reported to WHO rose by 30% largely driven by the highly contagious Omicron variants BA.4, BA.5 and other descendent lineages and the lifting of public health and social preventive measures, according to Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief.

Ryan said he worries less testing will allow more cases to go undetected and prevent researchers from learning more about how the virus evolves.

"The committee noted that both the trajectory of viral evolution and the characteristics of emerging variants of the virus remain uncertain and unpredictable," WHO says, adding the emergence and international spread of new variants "may present an even greater health impact" as the virus evolves unpredictably.

Of particular concern, it says, is the challenge of communicating the importance of public health and safety measures, such as the need to keep wearing masks and social distancing "given the general public’s perception that the pandemic may be over."

Based on the committee's advice, Tedros recommends governments update their planning, confront "pandemic fatigue," and expand access to vaccinations. He also recommends people travel or gather in crowds only after assessing the risks and continue to wear masks, social distance and stay home when sick.

WHO says more than 4.6 million cases a week are being reported, bringing the global total to about 550 million cases and more than 6.3 million deaths.

"I am concerned that cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, putting further pressure on stretched health systems and health workers. I am also concerned about the increasing trend of deaths," Tedros said.

"Subvariants of Omicron, like BA.4 and BA.5, continue to drive waves of cases, hospitalization and death around the world," he said. "Second, surveillance has reduced significantly — including testing and sequencing — making it increasingly difficult to assess the impact of variants on transmission, disease characteristics, and the effectiveness of counter-measures. Third, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines are not being deployed effectively."