More than three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the end of the public health emergency of international concern on Friday. A “sigh of relief” which does not surprise the experts consulted by La Presse.

“Everyone can breathe a big sigh of relief, it’s still a very good announcement,” reacted virologist Benoit Barbeau, professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).

“I’m not surprised, it was expected,” said Alain Lamarre, professor and researcher specializing in immunology, virology and cancer at the National Institute for Scientific Research.

“I think it’s a logical development,” also said André Veillette, researcher at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) and professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Montreal.

“It is with great hope that I declare the end of the global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced at a press conference in Geneva on Friday.

Mr. Ghebreyesus thus closed the chapter he himself had opened by declaring, on January 30, 2020, the highest level of health alert in international law.

“For Mr. and Mrs. Everybody, it won’t change much since there are practically no measures limiting their daily lives that are still in place. It’s more on the surveillance front,” Lamarre notes.

The end of the WHO alert does not mean that COVID-19 is gone. The coronavirus has continued to kill an average of five Quebecers per day since the start of 2023. And there are still 1,027 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, including 18 in intensive care. Nearly half (47%) of COVID admissions recorded over the past two weeks are mainly due to infection, according to data from the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec.

However, with the return of mild weather, the spread of the coronavirus seems to be slowing down significantly. The signal of COVID-19 in sewage from the four main cities of the province has been in sharp decline since the beginning of April, after remaining high all winter.

Canada’s Minister of Health, Jean-Yves Duclos, stressed in a press briefing that COVID-19 was still causing deaths and hospitalizations in the country, although in fewer numbers than before.

“There are the effects of long COVID that are both little known yet and very significant,” he added from Ottawa.

“We really see that there is a much more optimistic horizon compared to such a date in 2022, and before,” underlines Mr. Barbeau.

“While we could expect a rise in the winter, maybe even in the fall [2022], we were relatively spared or, at least, it was maintained, both internationally than in Canada or Quebec. »

Just a year ago, on May 4, 2022, the DG of WHO expressed concern about Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, responsible for an “increase in the number of reported cases in Americas and Africa”. The mutations kept the health systems on their toes, and did not seem to want to give them any respite. So what happened?

“The virus evolved in a classic direction: greater transmissibility, but much less virulence. And population immunity ensures that the virus no longer finds hosts who have never seen the virus or who have never been vaccinated,” says Lamarre.

“In 2022, what really helped was that we had a vaccination that was still maintained, but also a number of Quebecers infected with the virus, so we ended up with a hybrid immunity,” confirms Barbeau.

“It’s been a key element in our ability to reduce the risk of infection with severe symptoms in the general population,” he says, also citing “a little better fit” vaccines, the development of antivirals and better transmission support.

“COVID-19 has left, and continues to leave, deep scars,” the WHO DG recalled, however, speaking of the millions of people “who continue to experience the debilitating effects of post-COVID-19 ailments.” .

“I will not hesitate to call another meeting of the emergency committee if COVID-19 puts our world in jeopardy again,” he warned Friday.

“It’s prudent to keep an escape door, but the chances of that happening are low,” said Lamarre.

It’s more time to take stock.

“The good news is that all the efforts we have made have not been in vain,” notes Mr. Barbeau, recalling the development of vaccines “in record time” and certain effective antivirals.

“And with the shortcomings we have experienced, we know where to act to be better prepared for what could happen to us – in the most distant possible horizon, but which must still be considered as a possibility. »

The “2019 novel coronavirus” constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, according to the WHO. China then declared just over 9,000 confirmed or suspected cases, but in the rest of the world, only 83 have yet been identified.

Quebec declares a state of health emergency, which will be followed by a series of closures and measures in the following days. On March 18, the first death attributable to COVID-19 was recorded in the province, prompting a new round of restrictions.

The first vaccines against COVID-19 are administered in Quebec, to seniors and workers in CHSLDs.