As the World Health Organization prepares to decide whether COVID-19 remains a global emergency, the UN agency’s director-general says key pandemic indicators are going in the wrong direction, including a rising number of deaths.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday he is “very concerned” about the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and the impact it continues to have in many countries.
“In the past eight weeks, more than 170,000 people have died of COVID-19. That’s just reported, as the actual number of deaths is much higher,” he said.
“While I will not preempt the advice of the emergency committee, I remain very concerned by the situation in many countries and the rising number of deaths.”
WHO data shows that in the 28 days between Dec. 19, 2022, and Jan. 15, the number of COVID deaths worldwide increased by 20 per cent compared with the previous 28 days. Over 662 million confirmed cases and over 6.7 million deaths have been reported globally.
In Canada, the death toll from COVID-19 surpassed a grim milestone of 50,000, the country’s public health agency confirmed Monday.
Tedros warned the figures do not tell the whole story, as WHO has seen a “dramatic” decline in surveillance and genetic sequencing of the virus, which leaves health experts in the dark when it comes to efforts to track existing variants and detect new ones.
The UN agency has been raising concern about this drop in monitoring of the virus for a number of months, saying in December this could open the door to a new variant of concern.
As a result, it has added caveats to its weekly epidemiological reports on global COVID-19 circulation and case numbers, noting that any trends “should be interpreted with due consideration of the limitations of the COVID-19 surveillance systems.”
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The WHO Emergency Committee is scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss whether the current pandemic situation still constitutes a global emergency, almost exactly three years from the day WHO first declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern — the agency’s highest level of alert. The WHO would start calling the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
While the world is in better shape than it was three years ago, the global response to the outbreak is “once again under strain,” Tedros said.
“Too few people, especially older people and health workers, are adequately vaccinated. Too many people are behind on their boosters. For too many people, antivirals remain expensive and out of reach, and too many people don’t receive the right care,” he said.
Health systems around the world continue to struggle with the burden of the virus on top of caring for patients with other illnesses, including surges of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) happening simultaneously in many countries, he added.
During his remarks Tuesday, Tedros also raised concern about the “torrent of pseudoscience and misinformation” that has been circulating about COVID and the tools to fight it, such as vaccines.
He says this is “undermining trust in safe and effective tools for COVID-19.”
“My message is clear — do not underestimate this virus,” he said.
“It has and will continue to surprise us, and it will continue to kill unless we do more to get health tools to people that need them and to comprehensively tackle misinformation.”
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, noted that individuals or media raising questions and looking to fact-check health and safety information about what is known to date about the virus and vaccines is not an example of mis- or disinformation.
Robust dialogue about options and how governments and health agencies make decisions about the virus and its treatments are important and deserve transparency and public debate, Ryan said.
“Misinformation and disinformation are different … where information is used as a weapon to manipulate how people make conclusions,” he said.
“That’s what we’re fighting here. We’re not fighting dialogue.”
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