On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the end of COVID-19’s global emergency status, over three years since its original declaration. The agency declared that countries should now manage the virus, which has killed over 6.9 million people, alongside other infectious diseases.
The WHO’s Emergency Committee met on Thursday and recommended the UN organization declare an end to the coronavirus crisis as a “public health emergency of international concern.” This highest level of alert had been in place since Jan. 30, 2020.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the end of the emergency with the hope that countries would continue to take measures to combat COVID-19. He added that the end of the emergency did not mean COVID was over as a global health threat.
During a press briefing call, some WHO members became emotional as they urged countries to reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, stated, “We can’t forget those fire pyres. We can’t forget the graves that were dug. None of us up here will forget them.”
According to WHO data, the COVID death rate has slowed from a peak of more than 100,000 people per week in January 2021 to just over 3,500 in the week to April 24, 2023. This reflects widespread vaccination, availability of better treatments, and a level of population immunity from prior infections.
While ending the emergency could lead to the end or shift in focus of international collaboration or funding efforts, many have already adapted as the pandemic receded in different regions.
“The battle is not over. We still have weaknesses, and those weaknesses that we still have in our system will be exposed by this virus or another virus. And it needs to be fixed,” said the WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan.
The WHO does not declare the beginning or end of pandemics, although it did start using the term for COVID in March 2020.
The decision also suggests that WHO advisers believe a new more dangerous coronavirus variant is unlikely to emerge in the coming months, although the virus remains unpredictable.
“I will not hesitate to convene another emergency committee should COVID-19 once again put our world in peril,” WHO chief Tedros said.
The WHO published a plan this week advising countries on how to live with COVID long-term. COVID will continue to challenge health systems worldwide long term, including long COVID, infectious disease experts say.
“No one should take (this) to mean COVID-19 is no longer a problem,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. “It is still a significant public health problem and looks likely to remain one for the foreseeable future.”
Overall, the end of the emergency status marks an important milestone in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. However, it is crucial to recognize that the pandemic is not yet over, and measures to combat COVID-19 must continue.