‘It’s not over yet’: WHO makes pandemic declaration

5 minute read

Australian experts warn against complacency in fight to bring covid death rate down.

It’s not over yet, but there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel – that’s the message from the WHO and Australian covid experts.

However, they have warned that increased testing and vaccination rates, as well as public health measures and surveillance must improve across the board to achieve sustainable disease prevention and control.

Sydney-based infectious diseases expert Professor Robert Booy told The Medical Republic that Australia could not afford to become complacent about covid.

“In Australia right now the death rate hasn’t quite settled nearly as much as the hospitalisation and ICU rates, but generally the hospitalisation ICU rate is consistently down through January and the deaths will be down,” he said.

“It’s worth pointing out that for the last 13 months, we’ve averaged in Australia over 1000 deaths a month. In the first 22 months, from March 2020 until December 2021, we had 2200 deaths, so we had 100 a month. That’s quite stark.”

Dr Karina Powers, occupational and environmental physician and co-director of OzSAGE, told TMR she believed there was widespread misunderstanding of just how serious the disease was and how it had become one Australia’s biggest killers.

“We are experiencing around 40 times more deaths [from covid] that say from the flu striking us down with deaths,” she said. “This is massive, this is something that needs a critical response.”

She said OzSAGE supported the WHO’s statement that the pandemic was not over and remained a public health emergency.

“OzSAGE is concerned about the excess deaths related to covid in Australia during 2022,” Dr Powers said.

“Covid is now the third, and on some days the second-highest cause of death in Australia. There is every indication that unless Australia changes its stance on managing covid, this trend will continue into 2023.”

The WHO’s International Health Regulations Committee on Emergencies upheld the covid pandemic as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” at its 14th meeting on 27 January.

In a statement released this week, the WHO conceded that the pandemic was “probably at a transition point” but that long-term public health action was critical.

In his opening remarks to the committee meeting, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had some sobering statistics to report.

“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 WHO each week,” he said. 

“When you [the WHO committee] last met in October [2022], the number of weekly reported deaths was near the lowest since the pandemic began – less than 10,000 a week. However, since the beginning of December, the number of weekly reported deaths globally has been rising.”

The lifting of restrictions in China had a large role in this, as it had led to a spike in deaths in the world’s most populous nation, Dr Tedros said.

“Last week, almost 40,000 deaths were reported to WHO, more than half of them from China,” he said.

WHO data shows more than 170,000 covid-related deaths have been reported globally within the past eight weeks. In addition, surveillance and genetic sequencing have declined globally, making it more difficult to track known variants and detect new ones, Dr Tedros said.

Globally, nearly 1.9 million new cases and more than 12,000 deaths were reported in the week of 16 to 22 January 2023. Latest modelling shows cases on the decline but deaths on the increase (25% and 13% respectively).

Professor Booy told TMR there was “nothing sinister” in this modelling, and it was most likely due to the lag in a case being diagnosed, a patient being hospitalised and then dying.

The WHO committee recognised that pandemic fatigue and reduced public perception of risk have led to drastically reduced use of public health and social measures, such as masks and social distancing.

“Vaccine hesitancy and the continuing spread of misinformation continue to be extra hurdles to the implementation of crucial public health interventions,” it said in the statement.

“The committee agreed that covid-19 remains a dangerous infectious disease with the capacity to cause substantial damage to health and health systems.

An “inflexion point” may soon come thanks to growing population immunity, due to vaccines or prior infection, but the committee said there was “little doubt” the virus would be an ongoing threat for the foreseeable future.

“As such, long-term public health action is critically needed.”

University of Melbourne Professor Jodie McVernon, director of epidemiology at the Doherty Institute, said the WHO’s statement was well aligned with Australia’s national covid health management plan for 2023.

“Both documents call for attention to equity goals through risk-based approaches and community-engaged development of evidence-informed action and policies,” she said.

“Most importantly, the WHO announcement highlights the importance of avoiding the panic-neglect cycle. We must ensure that lessons learned from successes and gaps in the covid-19 response are carried forward into investment in stronger systems for research, monitoring, preparedness and response to the next emerging challenge.”

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