November 30, 2023

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COVID: How will WHO decision on emergency impact Canada

The World Health Organization Emergency Committee will decide on Jan. 27 if the COVID-19 pandemic is still a global emergency—and the decision could impact how governments, including Canada, proceed with tackling the virus.

The emergency declaration title, known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, is the highest alert level for the United Nations agency and issuing the declaration helps accelerate research, funding and international public health measures to contain the disease.

At a press conference Friday, federal public health officials told reporters that Canada will continue to monitor COVID-19 subvariants and urged people to get booster doses. As Omicron’s newest subvariant, the Kraken, spreads across the country, officials said the pandemic is not over.

The WHO committee is made up of independent experts who will evaluate the viral evolution of COVID-19 and the pressure it has on health services across the world.

On Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam said the decision by the UN is an “important deliberation.”

“Whatever the decision is made by the Director General of the WHO, I think we just need to keep going with what we’re doing now,” she said.

The newest Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, nicknamed ‘Kraken’, is the dominant variant in the United States and has started to spread across Canada. It is the most transmissible variant to date, experts warn but is not tied with increasing severity.

“In the upcoming year, we need to continue to monitor the evolution of the virus, the Omicron variant, because it’s still spreading quite a bit all over the world, it is going to undergo mutations,” Tam said at the press conference.

COVID-19 vaccine equity around the globe continues to be highlighted by officials in preventing more variants from emerging. Places like the Global South lack access to vaccines while western countries offer multiple boosters.

“Much more needs to be done to address worldwide vaccine inequities and prevent the emergence of the next devastating variant,” a report published Oct. 2022 in the International Journal of Infection Diseases reads.

Periodically over the three years since the declaration, the UN has met to reaffirm COVID-19’s global emergency title. It was last reaffirmed in July 2022.

Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo cautioned people thinking the pandemic is over.

“We haven’t reached the end of the pandemic,” Njoo said in French at Friday’s press conference. “I think we’ve passed the acute phase of the pandemic, but of course, the virus is continuing to circulate in Canada and around the world.”

Canadian hospitals have been under pressure over the last few months, as nurse burnout, COVID-19, the flu and RSV severely impact the number of patients accepted and emergency room wait times.

Njoo highlighted the continuation of monitoring COVID-19 for new variants and research on long-term symptoms of the virus.

“We’re continuing to state the same messages: Get vaccinated, keep your vaccinations up to date, and we’ll see what happens,” Njoo said. “Treatment and research are still very important against COVID, perhaps vaccines will have to be modified as well…We must not let down our guard.”