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WHO ends COVID-19 global health emergency status, shifts focus to long-term management of virus

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The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that it is ending the global emergency status for COVID-19. The announcement came more than three years after the original declaration of a public health emergency of international concern in January 2020. The WHO’s Emergency Committee met on Thursday and recommended the end of the coronavirus crisis as a public health emergency of international concern, which is the highest level of alert.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the decision, saying, “It is therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency.” He also noted that the end of the emergency did not mean COVID-19 was over as a global health threat. During the conference call to brief the press on the decision, some WHO members became emotional as they urged countries to reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 death rate has slowed considerably, with just over 3,500 people dying from the virus in the week ending April 24, 2023, according to WHO data. The slowdown reflects widespread vaccination, the availability of better treatments, and a level of population immunity from prior infections. However, the end of 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 receded in different regions.

Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, cautioned that the battle is not over, and weaknesses in our systems will be exposed by this virus or another virus. He added, “And it needs to be fixed.”

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The WHO does not declare the beginning or end of pandemics, although it did start using the term for COVID-19 in March 2020. “In most cases, pandemics truly end when the next pandemic begins,” Ryan said. The decision also suggests that WHO advisers believe a new more dangerous coronavirus variant is unlikely to emerge in the coming months, although the virus remains unpredictable.

Many parts of the world have experienced dwindling testing, and people have largely stopped wearing masks. The WHO published a plan this week advising countries on how to live with COVID-19 long-term. However, infectious disease experts caution that COVID-19 will continue to challenge health systems worldwide, including long COVID. “No one should take (this) to mean COVID-19 is no longer a problem,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. “It is still a significant public health problem and looks likely to remain one for the foreseeable future.”

In the United States, President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over last year. Like a number of other countries, the US has begun dismantling its domestic state of emergency for COVID-19, which officially ends on May 11, meaning it will stop paying for vaccines and testing for many people and shift responsibility to the commercial market.

The European Union also declared the emergency phase of the pandemic over in April last year, and other regions have taken similar steps. The WHO’s declaration comes just four months after China ended its prolonged severe COVID-19 restrictions and was ravaged by a big surge in infections.

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WHO chief Tedros said, “I will not hesitate to convene another emergency committee should COVID-19 once again put our world in peril.” The virus continues to be a major global health threat, and while the end of the emergency status is a step forward, there is still much work to be done in the fight against COVID-19.

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