The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an end to the global health emergency for COVID-19. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that it is “with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency”.
The WHO officially designated the virus a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020. The move to end the emergency status reflects lower death and hospitalization rates as well as an improved capacity to manage the virus through vaccination and treatment. As of April 24, the virus is killing about 3,500 people per week, down from a peak of 100,000 deaths per week in January 2021. The decision also indicates experts’ belief that a new more dangerous COVID-19 strain not likely to evolve in the next several months. Longer term, experts caution that the virus may pose a greater threat to public health. A panel of infectious disease researchers and epidemiologists estimated that the virus has a 5-30% chance of mutating into another highly dangerous variant (comparable in severity to the omicron variant) in the next two years. In addition to these risks, COVID-19 will persist as a significant public health problem because of long COVID and inequities faced by vulnerable populations. People over the age of 65 as well as individuals with weakened immune systems and certain chronic disease remain more susceptible to severe complications or death. “No one should take (this) to mean COVID-19 is no longer a problem,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. Experts stress that we should heed lessons learned from this pandemic to prepare properly for future threats.
The end of US government’s COVID-19 emergency declaration will trigger a major rollback of data collection on cases, hospitalizations, deaths and other metrics vital to our COVID-19 response. Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, is one of many experts who believe the government has gone too far in its dismantling of such systems. “I wish there wouldn’t be as much letdown, because this is on the horizon, is a real risk,” said Dr. Topol. As the world transitions out of the emergency phase of COVID-19, we can celebrate the progress we have made while making sure to investing in measures to ensure we never move backward.