COVID-19 no longer a global public health emergency

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The World Health Organization declared during a May 5 media briefing the COVID-19 pandemic emergency has ended. FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images
  • On May 5, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an end to COVID-19 as a public health emergency.
  • The public health agency acknowledged that COVID-19 remains an ongoing global health issue, particularly on the African continent.
  • Experts say most people may no longer need a mask, though regular booster shots are still recommended for immunocompromised individuals.

On May 5, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 is no longer a “public health emergency of international concern.”

The decision to end the pandemic’s emergency status after more than three years followed the 15th meeting of the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on May 4.

The WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a virtual media briefing the pandemic has been on a downward trend for more than a year, as population immunity has increased from both vaccination and infection, while mortality rates have decreased and overall pressure on health systems have eased.

“This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19. It is therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency. However, that does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat. Last week, COVID-19 claimed a life every three minutes — and that’s just the deaths we know about.”

– Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

More than three years since the WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency in January 2020, millions of people — estimates of around 7 million or more — have died. However, Dr. Tedros said those estimates could be closer to 20 million deaths, warning the virus still posed a significant global threat.

While many countries have learned to live with the virus for a year or more, others are far from “endemic” status.

In addition, a new coronavirus subvariant, Arcturus, is circulating in at least 31 countries, though the WHO says it’s no more dangerous than other variants that cause COVID-19.

Dr. Katherine O’Brien, director of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals at the WHO, said in a media briefing the high risk of severe illness and death is still low in many countries around the world, particularly in those with high COVID-19 vaccination rates.

“Vaccines have played a really important role in protecting populations,” she said, noting the WHO’s announcement does not mean the fight against the virus is over. “The work remains essential for the life-saving nature of the vaccines,” she said.

In conjunction with the WHO’s announcement, Dr. Tedros revealed the agency’s 2023-2025 COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, which details how different countries may transition to long-term management of COVID-19.

This plan outlines actions for managing the virus in 5 key areas:

  • collaborative surveillance
  • community protection
  • safe and scalable care
  • access to countermeasures
  • emergency coordination

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the technical lead for the WHO’s COVID-19 response team, acknowledged in the media briefing that many countries, particularly those in the African continent, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and will require continued management for minimizing infection.

“The worst thing to do is to dismantle systems,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said, adding that the WHO will continue to work with countries to calibrate the agency’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan — a 2-year initiative.

Depending on where you live, the WHO’s decision to end the pandemic’s global emergency status may seem overdue.

Some countries, particularly the United States, have lived as if no COVID-19 emergency existed for some time.

Dr. Van Kerkhove said the WHO’s declaration to end the pandemic’s emergency decision was “not a snap decision” and was weighed carefully over time. She stressed the way forward to manage the spread and severity of COVID-19 is about “vaccines and, not vaccines only.”

Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, noted that “people have an innate capacity to survive crisis” and that “we have more to do when it comes to serving the people properly.”

Dr. Monica Gandhi, MPH, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of California, San Francisco, noted to Medical News Today the global mortality rate from COVID-19 is at its lowest point since the pandemic began.

“It is appropriate for the WHO to declare the end of the public health emergency,” Dr. Gandhi said.

“Most countries with high vaccination rates ended the public health emergency a year ago,” she added, noting the European Centre for Disease Management and Control transitioned to endemic management in late April 2022.

In the United States, the COVID-19 emergency will end on May 11, 2023.

Some populations may still need to take precautions to protect themselves against COVID-19, which the WHO says will continue to have a pandemic status similar to HIV.

Dr. Gandhi recommends that immunocompromised individuals receive regular booster vaccination doses, ideally every 6 months, as she discusses in a recent research paper that she co-authored and published in the Lancet and as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Unfortunately, masks do not work as well as we thought they would at the beginning of the pandemic, so vaccination really should be the mainstay of protection for those with immunocompromise,” Dr. Gandhi added.

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