The World Health Organization ended the Covid-19 global health emergency on Friday, saying it was time for countries to transition from treating Covid as an emergency to dealing with it as a disease that is here to stay.
The decision was made on the advice of a panel of independent experts, the so-called Covid-19 emergency committee, which met Thursday. Though a couple of members of the committee were reportedly hesitant about the move, the majority agreed Covid no longer meets the criteria of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
“It’s … with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference in Geneva. “However, that does not mean Covid-19 is over as a global health threat.”
The Covid-19 PHEIC has been in effect since Jan. 30, 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, the WHO estimates that at least 20 million people around the world have died from the new disease, though the official death toll is about 7 million.
“Covid has changed our world and it has changed us,” Tedros said. “If we all go back to how things were before Covid-19, we will have failed to learn our lessons and we will have failed future generations.”
Tedros and other WHO officials emphasized that while they were ending the PHEIC, the pandemic is not over. The WHO does not declare the start of a pandemic and it will not declare an end to it either. Still, a Covid-weary world will likely interpret this announcement that way.
“The emergency phase of this global crisis that we’ve all been facing for three-and-a-half years is over, but Covid is here to stay,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Covid technical lead.
A PHEIC is a tool created within the International Health Regulations to help the WHO respond to disease events with the potential for global spread. When a PHEIC is in place, the WHO director-general can make special recommendations, mainly aimed at discouraging countries from closing borders or restricting trade — actions that could deter countries from alerting the WHO if they are dealing with dangerous disease outbreaks.
Didier Houssin, the chair of the emergency committee, said the decision to recommend an end to the PHEIC was in part due to the belief that the tool was not adapted to disease events that are sub-acute or chronic. Houssin acknowledged that there remains a risk that a more pathogenic variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus may emerge, and that a new PHEIC might need to be declared.The WHO’s declaration comes days before the U.S. public health emergency will expire, on May 11.
Tedros noted that the emergency committee also recommended that WHO use a tool of the IHR that has not previously been deployed — that he set up a review committee to advise WHO on the creation of recommendations for countries on the long-term management of Covid. The director-general said he accepted that advice.
These recommendations would build on an updated Covid management plan for the period from 2023 to 2025 that WHO issued earlier this week.
Tedros and members of his senior staff urged governments not to let down their guards but to work to improve the problems in health systems and response operations that the pandemic exposed.
“The battle is not over,” warned Mike Ryan, who heads WHO’s health emergencies program. “We still have weaknesses. And those weaknesses we still have in our system will be exposed by this virus or another virus. And they need to be fixed.”