WHO decides the COVID-19 global emergency isn’t over

WHO decides the COVID-19 global emergency isn’t over

OTTAWA – The World Health Organization decided Monday not to declare the global health emergency COVID-19 over.

OTTAWA – The World Health Organization decided Monday not to declare the global health emergency COVID-19 over.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the international organization’s director-general, said Monday: “There is no doubt that we are in a far better situation now” than a year ago, when the highly transmissible Omicron variant was at its peak.

But Tedros warned that at least 170,000 people have died worldwide in the last eight weeks related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He called for full vaccination of risk groups, an increase in testing and the early use of antivirals, an expansion of laboratory networks and a fight against “misinformation” about the pandemic.

“We remain hopeful that in the coming year the world will move into a new phase where we reduce hospital admissions and deaths to the lowest possible levels,” he said.

What would it mean if the WHO decided to remove this designation?

In declaring a global emergency, the WHO has essentially sounded the alarm about a serious global health risk that requires international cooperation.

It triggered a legally binding response among WHO member countries, including Canada, and allowed the organization to make temporary recommendations to those countries on how to prevent or deal with the threat.

In recent years, these recommendations have included quarantining infected people and their close contacts, as well as border testing and closures.

The formal deportation came on January 30, 2020, when 99 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases were still confined to China.

Even if this designation is removed, it does not mean that the pandemic is over or that the threat has ended.

Why was the WHO considering this now?

Monday marks exactly three years to the day since Tedros first declared the then-little-understood coronavirus a global health emergency.

Since then, a committee of global experts has met every three months to discuss whether the pandemic still fits that definition.

“As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we are certainly in a much better position now than we were a year ago when the omicron wave was at its peak and more than 70,000 deaths were being reported to the WHO each week,” Tedros said committee on Friday.

At the last meeting in October, he said weekly reported COVID-19 deaths were near their lowest level since the pandemic began.

On Friday, however, Tedros seemed to warn the committee not to be overly optimistic.

He said the number of weekly deaths had increased since early December, especially since China’s public health restrictions were lifted.

“In total, more than 170,000 deaths have been reported in the past eight weeks. The real number is certainly much higher,” he said.

He also reminded experts that the response to the pandemic remains “obstructive” in countries without vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19.

Even in countries where such tools are available, public confidence in these life-saving drugs has been eroded by disinformation campaigns, health systems remain overwhelmed by staff shortages, and COVID-19 surveillance efforts have been massively scaled back.

What will Canada do differently when the WHO declares the state of emergency over?

Not much. At a news conference Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, regardless of what the WHO decides, Canada will continue to track cases, serious illnesses and deaths and conduct vaccination campaigns.

Cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to the virus rose noticeably over Christmas and early January, Tam said, but all appear to be declining now.

“I think we must not give up the achievements of the last few years,” she said.

“I think whatever the decision of the Director-General of WHO, I think we just have to get on with what we’re doing now.”

Whose decision was it not to end the state of emergency?

The final call ended up being with Tedros, but he was informed by the advice of the Emergency Committee.

The group, which was first slammed in 2020 when the threat of COVID-19 first came to light, voted on Friday on whether or not to maintain formal emergency evictions.

When will the pandemic finally be over?

It’s still hard to say because COVID-19 is still spreading around the world.

The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic a month and a half after it was classified as a global emergency, and at the time Tedros struggled to explain that the two classifications are not one and the same.

“The description of the situation as a pandemic does not change the WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what the WHO is doing and it doesn’t change what countries should be doing,” Tedros said on March 11, 2020.

Last fall, he declared the end of the pandemic was “in sight,” but it’s hard to say when it will be fully in sight.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 30, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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