Mumbai, July 13

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organisation chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said.

His statement follows advice from the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee on coronavirus, that had its twelfth meeting late last week. And it has ramifications on, among other things, the several alliances on Covid-19 medicines and vaccines, where innovator companies did not take royalties from generic companies making their products for the period of the pandemic.

During his regular briefing, Dr Tedros said, the rise in Covid-19 cases was putting further pressure on stretched health systems and health workers. He was concerned over the increasing trend of deaths. Outlining the emergency committee’s observations, he said, Omicron sub-variants such as BA.4 and BA.5 were driving waves of cases, hospitalisation and death around the world. This, even as surveillance had reduced significantly, including testing and sequencing. And, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines were not being deployed effectively.

“The virus is running freely and countries are not effectively managing the disease burden based on their capacity, in terms of both hospitalisation for acute cases and the expanding number of people with post Covid-19 conditions - often referred to as long-Covid,” he said, pointing also to the “major disconnect” in the Covid-19 risk perception between scientific communities, political leaders and the general public.

“New waves of the virus demonstrate again that Covid-19 is nowhere near over,” he added.

Uncertain and unpredictable

At the meet, Dr Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, expressed concern at the global Covid-19 epidemiological situation. Covid-19 cases reported to the WHO had increased by 30 per cent in the last two weeks, largely driven by the Omicron BA.4, BA.5 and other descendent lineages, and the lifting of public health and social measures.

The situation presented added challenges, including recent changes in testing policies that hinder the detection of cases and the monitoring of virus evolution; inequities in access to testing, sequencing, vaccines and therapeutics, including new antivirals; waning of natural and vaccine-derived protection; and the global burden of the post Covid-19 condition, he added.

“The epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 virus infection remains unpredictable as the virus continues to evolve, through sustained transmission in the human population and in domestic, farmed, and wild animals in which the virus was newly introduced,” the committee noted.

Fitter variants

Pointing out that the trajectory of viral evolution and characteristics of emerging variants of the virus remain uncertain and unpredictable, they said the absence of public health and social measures aimed at reducing transmission has resulted in “the probability of new, fitter variants emerging with different degrees of virulence, transmissibility, and immune escape potential.”

The committee recognised an overall “decoupling of incident cases from severe disease, deaths, and pressure on health systems in the context of increased population immunity”. However, it unanimously agreed that the pandemic still meets the criteria of an extraordinary event that continues to adversely impact the health of the world’s population, and that the emergence and international spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants may present an even greater health impact, the WHO said.

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