The World Health Organization (WHO) sees the declaration of the COVID-19 disease as a public health emergency being lifted this year, the body’s technical lead for the coronavirus illness said Wednesday in a live question-and-answer session on social media.
“I do think this is the year, the fourth year of this pandemic, where we can really end this as an emergency everywhere. We’re on track for that,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said.
Even then, countries should consider recommending that passengers wear masks on long-haul flights, given the rapid spread of the latest Omicron subvariant of COVID-19 in the United States, another WHO official added.
In Europe, the XBB.1.5 subvariant was detected in small but growing numbers, WHO and Europe officials said at a press briefing.
Passengers should thus be advised to wear masks in high-risk settings such as long-haul flights, said the WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood.
“This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread COVID-19 transmission,” Smallwood added.
In the Philippines, the country has logged some 128 new cases of Omicron COVID-19 subvariants, the Department of Health (DOH) said Wednesday.
Based on the DOH’s latest biosurveillance report, 52 were classified as BA.2.3.20, 1 case as BN.1, 10 cases as BA.5, 28 as XBB, 13 as XBC, and 24 as other Omicron subvariants.
The new BA.5 cases include 3 cases of BF.7 and 1 BQ.1, and the report also showed that one additional case was classified as delta, with a collection date in mid-December 2022.
These are the results of the latest sequencing run conducted from January 3 to 9, the DOH said.
The WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, 2020, and then as a pandemic on March 11 that year.
Kerkhove said that despite the continuous viral transmission all over the world, all countries now have tools to manage severe cases of the disease and death.
“We’re in a position where we can track this virus. We’re in a position where we can treat patients [and] prevent them from developing severe disease,” she said.
“We’re in a position where we can prevent deaths. We just have to use those tools appropriately everywhere.”
But surveillance and monitoring of infections remain critical as new and more transmissible omicron subvariants emerge, Kerkhove said.
Based on WHO data from Dec. 5, 2022, to Jan. 1 this year, 14.5 million cases and over 46,000 new fatalities were reported globally. This translates to an increase of 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively, from the previous month.
According to the latest epidemiologic report, “current trends in reported COVID-19 cases are underestimates of the true number of global infections and reinfections as shown by prevalence surveys.”
Health authorities are one in saying that the chances of eradicating SARS-CoV-2 are next to impossible at this point.
But Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s executive director for health emergencies, is hopeful that the transmission of the virus “will be settling down into a pattern of some kind.”
“I think this virus will transmit in all seasons. But [the] transmission will tend to be more intense in these seasons (during) which we all go inside and gather more (and) people are much closer together. That aligns very much with the same risks of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu. So we’re adding another virus onto that already heavy load on our health systems in the winter,” he said.
The WHO reiterates the importance of vaccination and boosters, particularly among the most vulnerable.
While masking is now optional in most parts of the world, Kerkhove says it remains to be one of the hallmarks of the COVID-19 response.
“The recommendation is not for everyone to wear a mask everywhere all the time. It’s about knowing the type of setting that you’re in, where you’re going to be. Putting a mask, making sure it fits well over your nose and mouth, particularly when you’re in indoor settings or ventilation is poor,” she said.
Kerkhove had previously shared the WHO’s plan to end the global health emergency on COVID-19 in 2022. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed the same hope for 2023.
The respiratory disease is believed to have emerged in China in late 2019. As of Jan. 10 this year, there are 660,131,952 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 6,690,473 deaths, reported to the WHO.
The agency said that as of Dec. 21 last year, a total of 13,073,712,554 vaccine doses have been administered globally.
XBB.1.5 – the most transmissible Omicron subvariant detected so far—accounted for 27.6% of COVID-19 cases in the United States for the week ended Jan. 7, health officials have said.
It was unclear if XBB.1.5 would cause its own wave of global infections. Current vaccines continue to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death, experts say.
“Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing” and if action is considered, “travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner,” Smallwood said.
That did not mean the agency recommended testing for passengers from the United States at this stage, she added.
Measures that could be taken include genomic surveillance and targeting passengers from other countries as long as it does not divert resources from domestic surveillance systems. Others include monitoring wastewater around points of entry such as airports.
XBB.1.5 is another descendant of Omicron, the most contagious and now globally dominant variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. It is an offshoot of XBB, first detected in October, itself a recombinant of two other Omicron subvariants.
Concerns about XBB.1.5 fueling a fresh spate of cases in the United States and beyond are on rising amid a surge of COVID cases in China after the country pivoted away from its signature “zero COVID” policy last month.
Of the 52 additional BA.2.3.20 cases in the Philippines, 51 were local cases from Regions 1, 2, 3, 4A, 5, 6, 7, CAR, and NCR, while the remaining case was a returning overseas Filipino, the DOH said.
The recently detected BN.1 case, reported under BA.2.75, was a local case from Region 6.
Meanwhile, of the 10 new BA.5 cases, 6 were local cases from Region 6 and 11, while the remaining 4 cases were classified as ROFs.
The DOH said all additional XBB and XBC cases were local cases coming from Regions 1, 3, 4A, 6, 7, 11, CAR, and NCR. The additional delta case was a local case from Region 3.
While previous “variants of concern” like alpha and delta eventually petered out, omicron and its sublineages have dominated throughout 2022.
All omicron variants tend to have a milder disease course as they settle less in the lungs and more in the upper nasal passages, causing symptoms like fever, tiredness, and loss of smell.
So far, the BA.5 is still the dominant strain in the Philippines, with 12,658 cases, according to the DOH.
It is followed by BA.2.3.20 with 3,881 cases, XBB with 949 cases, XBC with 610 cases, and BA.4 with 325 cases.
The country also has 38 BA.2.75 cases, 19 BQ.1 cases, 7 BF.7 cases, and 4 BN.1 cases.
The Philippines has yet to detect omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, a descendant of XBB and XBB.1.