• 05-May-2023

Covid is no longer global health emergency, says WHO

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What this news means is that it is time for countries to transition from emergency mode to managing Covid-19 alongside other infectious diseases, says Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that Covid-19 was no longer a global health emergency as declared three years ago and was ending a phase that had upended lives and killed seven million people around the world. However, the virus will continue to be seen as a public health threat and have a pandemic status like HIV.
  • “With great hope, I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency,” WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said. However, he mentioned categorically that the Covid virus was not 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 virus is 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,” Dr Tedros added.
  • Although WHO officials believe they have tools to contain waves of future pandemics, we have to learn to live with the virus that caused, according to Dr Tedros, “severe economic upheaval, erasing trillions from GDP, disrupting travel and trade, shuttering businesses and plunging millions into poverty.”
  • Dr Tedros also had a word of caution. “The worst thing any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard, to dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that Covid-19 is nothing to worry about. What this news means is that it is time for countries to transition from emergency mode to managing Covid-19 alongside other infectious diseases.” He added that should the virus pose a global peril, he wouldn’t hesitate to summon the Emergency Committee for a fresh assessment.
  • In practical terms, the decision may not change perceptions much as many countries have already rolled back public health restrictions. But it does calm anxieties and helps nations take more structured long-term strategies in public health.
  • During the deliberative session, the Committee members — on whose advice Dr Tedros made the announcement — highlighted the decreasing trend in Covid-19 deaths, the decline in Covid-19 related hospitalisations and intensive care unit admissions, and the high levels of population immunity to SARS-CoV-2. The committee’s position has been evolving over the last several months. While acknowledging the remaining uncertainties posted by potential evolution of SARS-CoV-2, they advised that it is time to transition to long-term management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The WHO Director-General will convene an IHR Review Committee to advise on Standing Recommendations for the long-term management of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, taking into account the 2023-2025 Covid-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan.
  • Nations, the WHO hopes, will “sustain the national capacity gains and prepare for future events to avoid the occurrence of a cycle of panic and neglect. States Parties should consider how to improve country readiness for future outbreaks. In alignment with WHO guidance, States Parties should update respiratory pathogen pandemic preparedness plans incorporating learnings from national and sub-national after action reviews. States Parties should continue to restore health programmes adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic”.
  • It adds, “Integrate Covid-19 vaccination into life course vaccination programmes. States Parties should maintain efforts to increase Covid-19 vaccination coverage for all people in the high-priority groups (as defined by the SAGE Roadmap of April 2023) with WHO recommended vaccines and continue to actively address vaccine acceptance and demand issues with communities. States Parties should maintain reporting of mortality and morbidity data as well as variant surveillance information to WHO.”
  • Reacting to the WHO’s announcement, cardiologist and epidemiologist Dr K Srinath Reddy, Distinguished Professor, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), said, “WHO’s decision to declare an end to the global public health emergency caused by COVID-19 is a well-judged response to the changed situation after the variant Omicron has established itself as the dominant and durable variant over the 18 months since it emerged.
  • Despite its high transmissibility and immune evasion capacity, it has manifested reduced virulence. With low rates of severe illness, hospitalisation and death, this variant has no longer imposed severe stress on health and social systems which are also now better prepared to counter the virus.
  • Under these circumstances, the label of a public health emergency is no longer justified. However, we must continue to be vigilant against more virulent variants through strong surveillance and strengthened health systems.”