Medical staff vaccinated people around the clock during the peak of the infection in 2021. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Covid-19 over as a global health emergency: WHO

But it does not mean the disease is no longer a global threat as the virus is still here to stay, said the WHO chief

Following the consultation with the Covid-19 Emergency Committee which convened on Friday, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hence declared an end of a global health emergency status for Covid-19.

The world’s public health agency first made Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020_its highest level of alert.

“The Covid-19 Emergency Committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern. I have accepted that advice,” said Dr. Tedros during the press briefing. “With great hope, I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency.”

On Friday, the committee met to review the status of Covid-19 to provide recommendations to the WHO. It had considered whether the disease continues to constitute an extraordinary event, a public health risk to other countries through the international spread, and whether it potentially requires a coordinated international response_ the three prime criteria for a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), according to its statement issued on the same day.

According to the same statement, the committee acknowledged that although Covid-19 has been and will continue circulating widely and evolving, it is no longer an unusual or unexpected event. It further pointed out that the WHO director-general can decide to convene a meeting of the committee on the pandemic in the future if the situation requires. 

“While the PHEIC has been a valuable instrument to support the global response to Covid-19, the Committee agreed that the time is right to move towards the long-term management of SARS-CoV-2 as an ongoing health issue,” noted the committee.

The committee viewed that while the global risk assessment remains high, there is evidence of “reducing risks” to human health driven mainly by high population-level immunity from infection, vaccination, or both. There is also “consistent virulence” of currently circulating Omicron sub-lineages compared to the previously circulating ones, and last but not least, there is improved clinical case management. 

These factors, they said, have contributed to a significant global decline in the weekly number of Covid-19 related deaths, hospitalizations, and admissions to intensive care units since the beginning of the pandemic. While the virus continues to evolve, the currently circulating variants do not appear to be associated with increased severity, they added.

According to the WHO, the cumulative cases worldwide has stood around 765,223,000 (May 3), with nearly seven million deaths (6.92). As of 30 April, a total of more than 13.3 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.

l Credit: WHO

Decision not lightly

The UN News reported Dr. Tedros as saying that the decision had not been made lightly. He further said that the committee had been carefully examining the data for the past year, on the right time to lower the alarm.

For over 12 months, the pandemic “has been on a downward trend” with immunity increasing due to the highly effective vaccines developed in record time to fight the disease, and infections, the WHO chief said. Death rates, he added, have decreased and the pressure on once-overwhelmed health systems has eased.

“This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19,” added Dr. Tedros.

However, the WHO chief stressed that ending Covid-19 as a global health emergency does not mean the disease is no longer a global health threat.

At the committee’s meeting, he had expressed concern that surveillance reporting to WHO has declined significantly, that there continues to be inequitable access to life-saving interventions, and that pandemic fatigue continues to grow. 

“Last week, Covid-19 claimed a life every three minutes_and that’s just the deaths we know about”, said Dr. Tedros.

The WHO chief said the virus was here to stay; “It is still killing and it is still changing. The risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths,” said Dr. Tedros.

Political fault lines

The UN news agency further reported that the WHO chief reflected that the impact of the pandemic had exposed “political fault lines” within and between nations because it has eroded trust between people, governments and institutions, fuelled by a torrent of mis- and disinformation.

Dr.Tedros also noted the enormous damage inflicted on all aspects of global life by the virus, including enormous economic upheaval, “erasing trillions from GDP, disrupting travel and trade, shuttering businesses, and plunging millions into poverty.”

The WHO chief reminded that as he was speaking thousands around the world continue to fight for their lives in intensive care, and millions more will live for the foreseeable future “with the debilitating effects” of post-Covid conditions, or so-called “long Covid”.

At one level, the end of the emergency was a moment to celebrate, but at another level, it was a time for deep reflection, with Covid-19 continuing to leave “deep scars on our world”, the world’s public health agency chief pointed out.

“These scars must serve as a permanent reminder of the potential for new viruses to emerge, with devastating consequences”, remarked Dr. Tedros.

The WHO chief further pointed out that many mistakes were made, including a lack of coordination, equity and solidarity, which meant that existing tools and technologies were not best used to combat the virus.

“We must promise ourselves and our children and grandchildren, that we will never make those mistakes again. This experience must change us all for the better,” said Dr. Tedros.

As for Thailand, the national communicable diseases committee decided to apply vaccination as a prime approach against the virus. On April 27, it convened and agreed to introduce an annual vaccination against Covid-19 and this can go along with vaccination against influenza, or what it calls, dual immunity.

The Public Health Ministry projects that the virus will spread in the rainy season and recommends people come to get the vaccines before that period. 

“There is no need to count how many times you have received the vaccines. This (the vaccination) will become annual,” said Public Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul.

As reported by the ministry, the number of Covid-19 patients has increased in double following a long holiday of Songkran in mid-April, but it’s still controllable. The weekly number of Covid-19 hospitalisation cases stood at 1,811, as of May 1, and the number of deaths was 10.

Thailand has lowered the status of Covid-19 to the disease under surveillance since late November to loosen the restrictions once imposed against activities highly posing Covid-19 infection risks and to boost the economy of the country.

Sources: WHO/ UN News