By Natasha O’Neill
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Mississauga, Ont. (CTV Network) — The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee will decide on Jan. 27 whether the COVID-19 pandemic is still a global emergency — and the decision could affect how governments, including Canada, proceed to fight the virus .
The title of the declaration of emergency, known as the Public Health Emergency of International Concern, is the highest alert level for the United Nations agency, and the issuance of the declaration is helping to strengthen public health research, funding and international action to contain the disease to accelerate.
At a news conference Friday, federal health officials told reporters Canada will continue to monitor COVID-19 subvariants and urged people to receive booster doses. As Omicron’s newest subvariant, the kraken, spreads across the country, officials said the pandemic is not over.
The WHO committee consists of independent experts who will assess the viral evolution of COVID-19 and the pressure it is putting on health services around the world.
On Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam said the UN’s decision was an “important consideration”.
“Whatever the decision of the WHO Director-General, I think we just have to get on with what we’re doing now,” she said.
The latest Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, nicknamed “Kraken”, is the dominant variant in the United States and has started to spread across Canada. It’s the most transmissible variant yet, experts warn, but isn’t associated with increasing severity.
“In the coming year, we need to continue to monitor the evolution of the virus, the Omicron variant, as it will still spread quite a bit around the world and undergo mutations,” Tam said at the press conference.
The equality of COVID-19 vaccines around the world continues to be highlighted by officials to prevent more variants from emerging. Places like the Global South lack access to vaccines, while western countries offer multiple booster shots.
“Much more needs to be done to address the global vaccination disparity and prevent the emergence of the next devastating variant,” said a report published in October 2022 in the International Journal of Infection Diseases.
In the three years since the declaration, the United Nations has met regularly to reaffirm the global emergency response to COVID-19. It was last reaffirmed in July 2022.
Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, warned people who believe the pandemic is over.
“We haven’t reached the end of the pandemic yet,” Njoo said in French at Friday’s press conference. “I think we have survived the acute phase of the pandemic, but of course the virus continues to circulate in Canada and around the world.”
Canadian hospitals have been under pressure in recent months as nurse burnout, COVID-19, the flu and RSV severely impact the number of patients admitted and emergency department wait times.
Njoo highlighted continued surveillance of COVID-19 for new variants and research into long-term symptoms of the virus.
“We continue to make 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, vaccines may also need to be modified… We must not let our guard down.”
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