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COVID-19 remains a global health emergency, WHO says

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Trudeau says COVID-19, flu shots reduce ‘danger’ of needing other health measures this winter
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that Canadians should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza ahead of the winter to avoid the "danger" of needing other health measures this winter. He urged the inoculations to protect the health-care system from dealing with preventable admissions. – Oct 17, 2022

Despite a decline in cases and deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, the World Health Organization says the virus remains a public health emergency of international concern.

Last week, for the first time since this declaration was made in January 2020, the WHO’s emergency committee discussed whether the designation should be terminated.

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It determined too many people are still dying, the virus is still spreading and there remain too many unknowns about how the 300 subvariants of the Omicron strain circulating around the world could change the current picture, the WHO said Wednesday.

“While the global situation has obviously improved since the pandemic began, the virus continues to change, and there remain many risks and uncertainties,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters during a briefing in Geneva.

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“This pandemic has surprised us before and very well could again.”

A total of 9,000 COVID-19 deaths were reported globally in the first week of October, which was a 10 per cent drop from the week before, according to WHO data.

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In Canada, COVID-19 weekly case counts since Oct. 8 have been “stable” but hospitalizations are increasing in  parts of the country, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday.

“This could be an early sign of fall resurgence,” she said.

Meanwhile, immunity against the virus is also waning for many Canadians, according to Tam. Only 18 per cent of Canadians who are eligible are currently up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccinations – which is defined as having received the primary series of two initial doses and a booster in the last six months, Tam said.

COVID-19 vaccine efficiency wanes significantly over time, down to 20 per cent or lower six months after the second dose, compared with up to 80 per cent effectiveness when first administered, according to data provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in June.

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Younger populations in Canada are the least protected by vaccines, Tam said Tuesday, and only five per cent of Canadians have received the new bivalent vaccines, which contain protection against both the original and Omicron strains of the virus.

With more large gatherings moving indoors as temperatures drop, respiratory illnesses will spread more easily and the risk of exposure to COVID-19 may be increasing with more virus circulating and waning immunity, she added.

“The World Health Organization recently indicated that we have never been in a better position to end the pandemic, but while the end is in sight, we’re not there yet,” Tam said Tuesday.

Dr. Didier Houssin, chair of the WHO emergency committee, said the decision not to terminate the designation of COVID-19 as a global health emergency by the committee was unanimous.

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He also said the number of deaths every week remains too high, and uncertainty and risk remains about the pathogenic effects and immune evasion of new variants of concern.

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There is also fear that terminating this emergency designation might aggravate inequalities that exist in many low-income countries regarding access to vaccines and therapeutics such as Paxlovid, and that it could demobilize global efforts to prepare for future pandemics, Houssin said.

Preliminary steps may be required before lifting this designation in future, such as a winter test in northern hemisphere countries as well as analyzing and preventing possible negative consequences, including possible legal implications regarding access to vaccines and anti-virals, Houssin added.

WHO also stressed Wednesday that a significant drop in surveillance, such as testing and genomic sequencing of new variants in most countries is making it increasingly challenging to keep track of how COVID-19 is changing and affecting populations around the world.

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“We need to be able to track this virus,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response.

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“There are millions of cases being reported each week, but our surveillance has declined, testing has declined, sequencing has declined. And that, in turn, has limited our ability as an organization with our expert networks around the world to assess this.”

The WHO emergency committee has issued temporary recommendations to its members states, including calls for increased surveillance capacity to detect and assess emerging variants and significant changes to COVID-19 epidemiology, as well as increased surveillance of the presence and evolution of SARS-COV-2 in animal populations, and it has repeated calls for equitable access to vaccines and therapeutics.

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The committee is recommending that countries continue to adapt the use of individual-level protective measures to reduce transmission of the virus to ensure they are “appropriately tailored to the changing epidemiological context, including changing risks associated with future variants of concern.” This includes tailoring public health measures to any potential changes in the behaviour of the virus, “including as relevant for mass gathering events,” the WHO committee said in its recommendations.

In addition, the committee also recommended member states continue to adjust remaining international travel-related measures, and that countries should “not require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 as a prerequisite for international travel.”

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