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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The pandemic remains a global health emergency, the World Health Organization says

By Adeel Hassan

With known coronavirus cases rising significantly across the globe, continued omicron evolution and increased pressure on public health systems, the World Health Organization earlier this week said that the pandemic remains a public health emergency.

The agency, which is part of the United Nations, first declared the coronavirus outbreaks a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30, 2020, nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

The decision to continue the global emergency status was based on several factors, including that “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 countermeasures,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO.

“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 at a news conference in Geneva.

As of Monday, an average of more than 930,000 newly confirmed virus cases are being reported globally each day, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. That is a 37% rise over the past two weeks. In the same period, there has been an average of more than 1,700 deaths, an 18% increase, Johns Hopkins data shows.

The reported cases are considered a significant undercount of the true infection rate, as the WHO noted, because testing and tracking have been curtailed. There is waning immunity in the wealthy nations that have had access to vaccines for about 1 1/2 years, although the vaccines remain highly protective against the worst outcomes.

In addition, countries like the United States have been throwing out vaccine doses, while not even two-thirds of the world population is fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

Those vaccines, while valuable, have become dated. U.S. regulators committed last week to updating the 2020 vaccine recipes for this fall’s booster campaign with new formulas meant to defend against the ultra-contagious omicron subvariants.

Those rapidly spreading subvariants, known as BA.4 and BA.5, are driving a summertime surge of the coronavirus in Europe, health officials say. BA.5 is dominant among new cases in the United States, where rising test positivity rates suggest that many places around the country are experiencing new outbreaks of infections.

As of the week ending Saturday, BA.5 made up 65% of new cases in the United States and BA.4 made up 16%, according to estimates released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Combined, the two subvariants accounted for about 52% of new cases only two weeks ago.

“The reporting of BA.5 is increasing in terms of the reports, and has increased substantially over the last four weeks alone,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead. “We expect that trend to continue around the world, but we will continue to assess this as we go forward. We need more data to be able to do that — to look again at transmissibility and escape severity.”

The WHO’s emergency committee convened virtually Friday to assess the course of the pandemic, and decided it continued to meet the criteria of a health emergency.

“There is a major disconnect in COVID-19 risk perception between scientific communities, political leaders and the general public,” Tedros said Tuesday. “COVID-19 is nowhere near over.”

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