Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said the decision to end the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern comes after a recommendation from the organization’s emergency committee.
“Yesterday, the 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,” he said.
“It is therefore with great hope that I declare #COVID19 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.”
The decision to end the global health emergency status was supported by a majority of the committee, said Didier Houssin, head of the agency’s COVID emergency committee.
Lifting the global health emergency status is a sign of the progress the world has made fighting the disease, but COVID-19 is here to stay, the WHO has said, even if it no longer represents an emergency.
Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said “the global public health emergency has ended” but noted there’s “still a public health threat out there.”
“We fully expect that this virus will continue to transmit,” Ryan said.
Ryan added: “The battle is not over.”
That sentiment was one the Government of Canada shared later on Friday.
“The Government of Canada recognizes that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still circulating across Canada and worldwide,” health officials said in a statement.
“The Government of Canada will continue to work with the WHO, international partners and with Canadian provinces and territories to monitor the COVID-19 situation and to mitigate domestic health and societal impacts of this virus.”
COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019 before spreading across the world, leading to lockdowns and other public health measures for more than three years.
The WHO first declared COVID a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, 2020. and officially called it a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
The COVID-19 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, according to WHO data, reflecting widespread vaccination, availability of better treatments and a level of population immunity from prior infections.
What does this mean for COVID going forward?
Ending the emergency could mean that international collaboration or funding efforts are also brought to an end or shift in focus, although many have already adapted as the pandemic has receded in different regions.
The WHO does not declare the beginning or end of pandemics, although it did start using the term for COVID in March 2020.
“In most cases, pandemics truly end when the next pandemic begins,” Ryan said.
Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden said the pandemic was over. Like a number of other countries, the world’s biggest economy has begun dismantling its domestic state of emergency for COVID, which officially ends May 11, meaning it will stop paying for vaccines and testing for many people and shift responsibility to the commercial market.
Other regions have taken similar steps. The European Union said in April last year the emergency phase of the pandemic was over, and the WHO’s African head, Matshidiso Moeti, said in December it was time to move to routine management of COVID across the continent.
The WHO’s declaration comes just four months after China ended its prolonged severe COVID restrictions and was ravaged by a big surge in infections.
In many parts of the world, testing has dwindled dramatically, and people have largely stopped wearing masks. In some countries, mask-wearing mandates have resumed during COVID outbreaks.
The WHO published a plan this week advising countries on how to live with COVID long-term.
With files from Reuters