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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan  

COVID-19 Pandemic:

Yes, it is over. No, it’s not over

by Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan

Recently, a family friend invited us and our common close friends to a birthday dinner celebration in a restaurant, adding the statement “Thanks, COVID is now over.”

Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear such comment since the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared on May 4th, 2023, that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) – the highest level of global public-health alarm.

Historical context

Then new respiratory coronavirus infection – subsequently given the name COVID-19 – was designated a PHEIC nearly three and a half years ago on January 30, 2020, for three reasons:

1. it was an extraordinary rapidly spreading contagious disease in China;

2. it posed a public health risk to many other countries through international travel, and;

3. it required a coordinated global response on many fronts:

  • public health advisories
  • use of face masks
  • emergency diagnostic test kits
  • daily tracking, reporting and availability of accumulating data on a global scope
  • worldwide efforts to re-purpose some existing medications and to develop new medications
  • speedy developments of vaccines, and their emergency deployments
  • mass vaccination
  • government fundings to assist in the foregoing developments, including emergency financial supports to healthcare facilities, businesses, and directly to citizens.

The PHEIC declaration was a useful tool that enabled governments worldwide to use extraordinary measures to manage the severe disruption to health systems, and to ease the severe economic, social, and political upheavals caused by this pandemic. It enabled national governments to marshal resources from varied sectors to ease the health crisis. It also prompted cooperation among nations.

Applying the same set of criteria three and a half years later, WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus agreed with the organization’s emergency committee’s recent recommendation and announced last month that COVID-19 had ceased being an “unusual and unexpected event” as described above. Caseloads, hospitalizations, and deaths from the disease have sharply declined in numbers and the levels of population immunity against the virus are high. Yes, COVID-19 – the gravest global health crisis in a century – is officially over as a global health emergency!

Does this mean the pandemic is over?

No. The pandemic is not over. In fact, the WHO itself emphasized when it made the announcement that the COVID-19 will continue to circulate widely and to evolve, and will continue to cause disease and death. But the worst segment is over.

Apprehension, specific concerns, and re-assurance

Apprehension: Nonetheless, some experts have raised measures of anxiety even as most welcomed the WHO announcement. Understandably so, for we know all too well that mutation into new strains is an ongoing property of the virus; thus, the risk of new variants with unpredictable characteristics remains. There is palpable anxiety this announcement might make governments and institutions neglect the disease and withdraw crucial resources to its continuing surveillance, particularly, for new recombinant variants that might emerge.

Might access to existing COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics become costly prohibitive in the months and years ahead, or their advanced developments halted?

Notes of caution have been struck and specific concerns expressed by Canadian experts Drs. Bogoch and Labos. Might there be lack of action to prevent resurgence? Might we backtrack on the gains achieved with respect to vaccination, testing and improvements in ventilation systems? Might we forget the need to upgrade infrastructure?

Reassurance: In this regard, a WHO advisory group has recently recommended that “this year’s booster shots be updated to target one of the currently dominant XBB variants: XBB.1.5 or XBB.1.16. It is reassuring to learn that Moderna Inc., Novavax Inc and Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine makers are already developing their corresponding versions.

The breakdown of variants reported by CTV News on May 23, 2023, is as follows: XBB.1.5 recombinant variant constitutes 41.4 per cent. which is somewhat less than the 50.3 per cent recorded two weeks earlier. Also, it appears the original strain is no longer significantly circulating.

The message from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is reassuring: “Canada will continue to monitor COVID-19 and will prepare for the fall as well as for future vaccination recommendations.”

An additional reassurance has come from the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, which was in the forefront of 24-7 data collection operations globally for three years. It remains “committed to maintaining a leadership role in providing the public and policymakers with cutting edge insights into COVID-19” as the world transitions from the emergency acute phase marked by exponential growth rate of the disease to the endemic stage when the disease remains in the community but not as widespread.

Concluding messages

COVID-19 is no longer an alarming global emergency. The worst is over and community life is closer to the pre-pandemic times. We no longer need the extraordinary mandatory measures taken to contain the spread of the virus. Indeed, it is only natural that after 1,191 days of critically stressed COVID-19 life we would welcome the end of it.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that the virus is here to stay permanently most likely as a human pathogen. Let us not drop all COVID-19 protective measures and consider our fellow citizens – the elderly and those with underlying medical issues that make them more at high risk. It becomes worrisome, indeed, when the human toll is concentrated among them – it can hurriedly recede from the public consciousness.

In this regard, I find Professor of Microbiology Dr. Simon Clarke’s (of Britain’s University of Reading) message compelling in its simplicity, hence I share: “If you’re ill with a respiratory infection, like a bad cough, don’t put others at risk, especially not those who are vulnerable. If you pass on a COVID infection, no one will thank you. If you’re fit and young, COVID can still be nasty and if you’re old and frail, it can kill you.”

To sum up: Yes, COVID-19 is over as a global health emergency. No, it is NOT over as a contagious disease.

Dr. Pagtakhan is a retired lung specialist and professor of pediatrics and child health from the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine and former Member of Parliament and cabinet minister.