WHO 'Concerned' About COVID Increase in Northern Hemisphere

Stéphanie Lavaud

September 07, 2023

GENEVA — The increase in cases of COVID-19 in the northern hemisphere is worrying healthcare authorities around the world, who are aware that these countries usually experience a peak in respiratory infections during the winter months.

During a recent press conference, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged nations to closely monitor COVID-19 cases and report the number of hospital admissions caused by the disease over the last few months, especially in Europe.

"The virus is currently reinfecting large numbers of individuals, millions of people, every week," warned Maria Van Kerkhove, MD, PhD, WHO's COVID-19 technical consultant. "We don't have a good idea of the number of infections and reinfections currently happening, because monitoring has been relaxed. But we have some indications of the current trend, in terms of impact."  

Around the world, more than 1.4 million new cases of COVID-19 and more than 2300 deaths were reported between July 17 and August 13, 2023, which is an increase of 63% and a reduction of 56%, respectively, compared with the previous 28 days.

Cases on the Rise

Van Kerkhove mentioned the slight increase observed in Europe in recent months. "It's summer in the northern hemisphere, and this is really not what we expect when we talk about respiratory diseases such as the flu, which usually peak during the winter months."  

These cases are "of concern," she said, especially in countries trying to navigate other problems such as mpox, the plague, earthquakes, heatwaves, and forest fires, where there are fewer beds available for patients with COVID-19.

"We are clearly not in the same epidemic situation as we were a year or two ago," said Van Kerkhove, but the virus is still spreading and killing people.

Government Action Needed

This concern comes as WHO is monitoring several new variants, such as the strain known as BA.2.86. According to WHO, around 10 cases have been detected in Denmark, Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa. It has also been detected in wastewater in Switzerland and Thailand.

"We have only detected a few cases," said Van Kerkhove during the press conference. "We can't determine its spread, because we don't have enough data. We can't predict with certainty what's going to happen with this variant or any other variant. But we are expecting the number of cases to keep going up."

This variant has not been given a name with a Greek letter, a feature reserved for so-called variants "of concern," she clarified.

Just a few days ago, the so-called EG.5 strain had the world's attention.

"While individuals believe the pandemic to be behind us, we are telling governments that they must continue to monitor COVID and remain diligent, as the threat is still there," she concluded.

The Situation in France

In France, between August 14 and August 20, 2023, the slight increase in indicators already observed in recent weeks continued, but these indicators were still at low levels, according to Public Health France. An increase was observed in the number of emergency department admissions for suspected COVID-19 for all age groups (2197 in week 33 vs 1555 in week 32, ie, +41%), but the proportion of hospital admissions after emergency department visits remains stable.

Home visits by doctors from SOS Médecins for suspected COVID-19 have also increased, with 2670 visits taking place in week 33 vs 1888 in week 32 (ie, +41%). However, Public Health France seeks to reassure the public, pointing out "that it is important to note that these numbers remain low, compared with the levels seen during previous waves of the epidemic."

This article was translated from Medscape's French edition.


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