JAKARTA – Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring on Friday that the COVID-19 pandemic no longer constitutes a global health emergency, concerns about an Arcturus-induced caseload spike in countries including Indonesia still linger.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said cases and mortality had been declining for more than a year, with population immunity increasing from vaccination and infection.
“Mortality decreasing and pressure on the health system easing. […] It is therefore with great hope that I declare it over as a global health emergency,” Tedros said in a press briefing.
He said the decision was taken after a panel of global health experts met for the 15th time on Thursday to decide if COVID-19 was still an emergency under the WHO’s rules, a status that helps maintain international focus on the pandemic.
The United Nations health agency first declared a so-called public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) over the crisis on Jan. 30, 2020. The panel has met every three months since then.
To date, the virus has infected more than 765 million people and caused at least 6.9 million deaths, although according to the WHO the real number of fatalities is closer to 20 million.
Despite the declaration, the virus remains a serious health threat for the public, Tedros stressed.
“This does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat, the virus is here to stay, it is still killing and it is still changing. The worst thing that any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard and to dismantle the system it has built,” he said.
Data from the WHO revealed that nearly 2.8 million new COVID-19 cases and over 17,000 deaths were reported globally in the past month alone.
Although global COVID-19 deaths have dropped by 95 percent since the start of the year, a mixed picture emerges at the regional level, with increases in reported cases and deaths seen in some regions and decreases in others.
The Southeast Asia region, for example, reported a 454 percent increase in new cases and a 317 percent rise in COVID-19 fatalities in the past 28 days, fueled by the spread of the highly contagious XBB.1.16 subvariant, known as Arcturus.
The WHO classified Arcturus as a new variant of interest at the tail end of last month, as the Omicron subvariant spread to at least 40 countries.
A study by the University of Tokyo found that Arcturus was nearly 1.2 times as transmissible as the XBB.1.5 or Kraken subvariant, another highly contagious version of the Omicron variant.
Two Indonesian epidemiologists who are part of the WHO’s panel of global health experts, I Nyoman Kandun and Dicky Budiman, told The Jakarta Post that they had advised the health agency to maintain the PHEIC status for COVID-19 at Thursday’s meeting.
Dicky said it was crucial to maintain the status to ensure that the global health community remained vigilant and prepared for potential COVID-19 resurgences.
“The status ensures that necessary resources and attention are given to countries experiencing outbreaks and facilitates international coordination and cooperation,” he said on Friday.
Dicky explained that both he and Nyoman had asked the WHO to develop a comprehensive plan for transitioning out of the PHEIC status.
“This should include a thorough assessment of the epidemiological situation, vaccination coverage and the capacity of countries to manage outbreaks effectively,” he said.
Dicky said such a plan was needed considering Indonesia is seeing another spike of cases due to the rapid spread of the Arcturus subvariant.
On Wednesday, Indonesia reported 2,647 new infections, the highest daily caseload in five months. Last week, there were 12,504 new cases,almost double the figure in the previous week with 6,371 new cases.
Hospital bed occupancy rates have increased to 8.1 percent and fatalities have increased since early April. On April 28, Indonesia recorded the highest number of fatalities in six months, with 37 deaths.
Indonesia had lifted all of its COVID-19 restrictions by the end of last year, and since then a total of 22,666 people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and 1,423 patients have died, recent data from the Health Ministry show.
Source: Asia News Network