Statement on the eleventh meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic
The eleventh meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic took place on Monday 11 April 2022 from 12:00 to 16:30 Geneva time (CEST).
Proceedings of the meeting
Members and Advisors of the Emergency Committee were convened by videoconference.
The Director-General welcomed the Committee members and advisers. The Director-General explained that the world has tools to limit transmission, save lives, and protect health systems. He expressed hope in the current epidemiological situation, noting that the world is currently experiencing the lowest number of reported deaths in two years. However, the unpredictable behavior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and insufficient national responses are contributing to the continued global pandemic context. The Director-General emphasized the importance of States Parties using available medical countermeasures and public health and social measures (PHSM). He highlighted the publication of the updated Strategic Preparedness, Readiness, and Response Plan which provides a roadmap for how the world can end the COVID-19 emergency in 2022 and prepare for future events.
Representatives of the Office of Legal Counsel (LEG) and the Department of Compliance, Risk Management, and Ethics (CRE) briefed the members on their roles and responsibilities. The Ethics Officer from CRE provided the members and advisers with an overview of the WHO Declaration of Interests process. The members and advisers were made aware of their individual responsibility to disclose to WHO, in a timely manner, any interests of a personal, professional, financial, intellectual or commercial nature that may give rise to a perceived or direct conflict of interest. They were additionally reminded of their duty to maintain the confidentiality of the meeting discussions and the work of the Committee. Each member who was present was surveyed. No conflicts of interest were identified.
The Secretariat turned the meeting over to the Chair, Professor Didier Houssin, who reviewed the objectives and agenda of the meeting.
The Secretariat presented on the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic and a vision for how to optimize the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic for 2022. The presentation focused on:
- the global epidemiological context and factors that continue to drive transmission;
- updates on international traffic as well as COVID-19 proof of vaccination and test result certificates;
- the status of COVID-19 vaccination; and
- the strategic objectives for countries to incorporate in their COVID-19 response.
The Committee discussed key issues including SARS-CoV-2 variants; use and equitable access to antivirals; vaccine protection and global shifts in the supply and demand for COVID-19 vaccines; hybrid immunity; potential future scenarios for SARS-CoV-2 transmission and challenges posed by concurrent health emergencies; and how Member States are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee also noted with concern the growing fatigue among communities worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges posed by the lack of trust in scientific guidance and governments.
The Committee recognized that SARS-CoV-2 is a novel respiratory pathogen that has not yet established its ecological niche. SARS-CoV-2 continues to have unpredictable viral evolution, which is compounded by its wide-spread circulation and intense transmission in humans, as well as widespread introduction of infection to a range of animal species with potential for animal reservoirs to be established. SARS-COV-2 is continuing to cause high levels of morbidity and mortality, particularly among vulnerable human populations. In this context, the Committee raised concerns that the inappropriate use of antivirals may lead to the emergence of drug-resistant variants. In addition, Committee members acknowledged national, regional, and global capacities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic context, but noted with concern that some States Parties have relaxed PHSM and reduced testing, impacting thus the global ability to monitor evolution of the virus. The Committee also noted with concern the inconsistency of global COVID-19 requirements for international travel and the negative impact that inappropriate measures may have on all forms of international travel. In this context, the Committee noted that offering vaccination to high-risk groups of international travelers on arrival could be considered a means to mitigate the risk of severe disease or death due to COVID-19 among these individuals.
The Committee stressed the importance of maintaining PHSM to protect vulnerable populations, and maintaining the capacity to scale up PHSM if the epidemiological situation changes. States Parties are advised to regularly adjust their response strategies by monitoring their epidemiological situation (including through use of rapid tests), assessing their health system capacity, and considering the adherence to and attributable impact of individual and combined PHSM.
In addition, the Committee reinforced the continued need for international cooperation and coordination for surveillance, as well as for robust and timely reporting to global systems (such as the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System) to inform national, regional, and global response efforts. Surveillance activities require coordination between the human and animal sectors and more global attention on the detection of animal infections and possible reservoirs among domestic and wild animals. Timely and systematic monitoring and data sharing on SARS-CoV-2 infection, transmission and evolution in humans and animals will assist global understanding of the virus epidemiology and ecology, the emergence of new variants, their timely identification, and assessment of their public health risks. Continued provision of technical support and guidance from all three levels of the WHO can enable States Parties’ adjustment of COVID-19 surveillance and its integration into respiratory pathogen surveillance systems.
The Committee acknowledged that COVID-19 vaccination is a key tool to reduce morbidity and mortality and reinforced the importance of vaccination (primary series and booster doses, including through heterologous vaccine schedules). The Committee expressed appreciation for WHO and partners’ work to enhance global vaccine supply and distribution. Committee members highlighted the challenges posed by limited vaccination protection, particularly in low-income countries, as well as by waning population-level immunity. As outlined in the SAGE roadmap, vaccination should be prioritized for high-risk groups such as health workers, older adults, and immune-compromised populations, refugees, and migrants. To enhance vaccine uptake, States Parties are encouraged to address national and sub-national barriers for vaccine deployment and to ensure COVID-19 response measures align with and strengthen immunization activities and primary health services.
In addition, the Committee noted the continued importance of WHO’s provision of guidance, training, and tools to support States Parties’ recovery planning process from the COVID-19 pandemic and future respiratory pathogen pandemic preparedness planning.
The Committee unanimously agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic still constitutes an extraordinary event that continues to adversely affect the health of populations around the world, poses an ongoing risk of international spread and interference with international traffic, and requires a coordinated international response. The Committee stressed the importance for States Parties to prepare for future scenarios with the assistance of WHO and to continue robust use of the essential tools (e.g. vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics). The Committee concurred that the COVID-19 pandemic remains a PHEIC and offered its advice to the Director-General.
The Director-General determined that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to constitute a PHEIC. He accepted the advice of the Committee and issued the Committee’s advice to States Parties as Temporary Recommendations under the IHR.
The Emergency Committee will be reconvened within three months or earlier, at the discretion of the Director-General. The Director-General thanked the Committee for its work.
Temporary Recommendations to States Parties
The Committee identified the following actions as critical for all countries:
- NEW: Strengthen national response to the COVID-19 pandemic by updating national preparedness and response plans in line with the priorities and potential scenarios outlined in the 2022 WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP). States Parties should conduct assessments (e.g. intra action and after action reviews) to inform current and future response and preparedness efforts. WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP)
- MODIFIED: Achieve national COVID-19 vaccination targets in line with global WHO recommendations of at least 70% of all countries’ populations vaccinated by the start of July 2022. States Parties are requested to support global equitable access to vaccines and to prioritize vaccination of high-risk populations through a primary series and booster schedule. These populations include health workers, older people, people with underlying conditions, immune-compromised, refugees, migrants, people living in fragile settings, and individuals with insufficient access to treatment. States Parties should continually assess their vaccine coverage and epidemiological situation in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and modify their national responses accordingly. WHO SAGE Prioritization Roadmap
- MODIFIED: Continue to use evidence-informed and risk-based PHSM. State Parties should be prepared to scale up PHSM rapidly in response to changes in the virus and the population immunity, if COVID-19 hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, and fatalities increase and compromise the health system’s capacity. States Parties are advised to continue the risk-based use of basic PHSM (e.g. wearing masks, staying home when sick, increased hand washing, and improving ventilation of indoor spaces, even in periods of low circulation of SARS-CoV-2). Considerations for implementing and adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19
- MODIFIED: Take a risk-based approach to mass gathering events by evaluating, mitigating, and communicating risks. Recognizing that there are different drivers and risk tolerance for mass gatherings, it is critical to consider the epidemiological context (including the prevalence of variants of concern and the intensity of transmission), surveillance, contact tracing and testing capacity, as well as adherence to PHSM when conducting this risk assessment and planning events, in line with WHO guidance. Key planning recommendations for mass gatherings in the context of COVID-19
- MODIFIED: Adjust COVID-19 surveillance to focus on the burden and impact and prepare for sustainable integration with other surveillance systems. States Parties should collect and publicly share indicators to monitor the burden of COVID-19 (e.g. new hospitalizations, admissions to intensive care units, and deaths). States Parties should integrate respiratory disease surveillance by leveraging and enhancing the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS). States Parties should be encouraged to 1) maintain representative testing strategies; 2) focus on early warning and trend monitoring, such as use of wastewater surveillance; 3) monitor severity in vulnerable groups; and 4) enhance genomic surveillance to detect potential new variants and monitor the evolution of SARS-COV-2. Guidance for surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants; WHO global genomic surveillance strategy for pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential 2022–2032
- MODIFIED: Ensure availability of essential health, social, and education services. States Parties should enhance access to health, including through the restoration of health services at all levels and strengthening of social systems to cope with the impacts of the pandemic, especially on children and young adults. Within this context, States Parties should maintain educational services by keeping schools fully open with in-person learning. In addition, essential health services, including COVID-19 vaccination, should be provided to migrants and other vulnerable populations as a priority. Building health systems resilience for universal health coverage and health security during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond: WHO position paper; The State of the Global Education Crisis | UNICEF
- MODIFIED: Lift international traffic bans and continue to adjust travel measures, based on risk assessments. The failure of travel bans introduced after the detection and reporting of Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time. The implementation of travel measures (such as vaccination, screening, including via testing, isolation/quarantine of travelers) should be based on risk assessments and should avoid placing the financial burden on international travelers, in accordance with Article 40 of the IHR. WHO advice for international traffic in relation to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant
- MODIFIED: Do NOT require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for international travel as the only pathway or condition permitting international travel. States Parties should consider a risk-based approach to the facilitation of international travel. Interim position paper: considerations regarding proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travelers; Policy considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to international travel in the context of COVID-19
- MODIFIED: Address risk communications and community engagement challenges, proactively counter misinformation and disinformation, and include communities in decision making. To re-build trust and address pandemic fatigue, States Parties should explain clearly and transparently changes to their response strategy. WHO risk communications resources
- MODIFIED: Support timely uptake of WHO recommended therapeutics. Local production and technology transfer should be encouraged and supported as increased production capacity can contribute to global equitable access to therapeutics. States Parties should provide access to COVID-19 treatments for vulnerable populations, particularly immunosuppressed people as this can also reduce the likelihood of new variants’ emergence. Therapeutics and COVID-19: living guideline
- MODIFIED: Conduct epidemiological investigations of SARS-CoV-2 transmission at the human-animal interface and targeted surveillance on potential animal hosts and reservoirs. Investigations at the human animal interface should use a One Health approach and involve all relevant stakeholders, including national veterinary services, wildlife authorities, public health services, and the environment sector. To faciliate international transparency, and in line with international reporting obligations, findings from joint investigations should be reported publicly. Statement from the Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Evolution in Animals