COVID-19 is no longer a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization announced May 5.
The organization pointed to two factors: Dropping COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations, and high levels of immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from vaccination or prior infection. While the pandemic is not over, those trends signal that it’s time to transition to more long-term prevention and control of the disease, WHO said in a statement.
“It’s reasonable, it makes sense,” says infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong of the University of California, San Francisco, noting that “it follows on the heels of many countries” doing the same thing. The U.S. public health emergency is officially set to end May 11 (SN: 5/4/23).
But, Chin-Hong adds, “this doesn’t mean that it’s not still a global health threat.”
Worldwide, more than 750 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported to the WHO as of May 3. And nearly 7 million people have died from the disease, including more than 1.1 million people in the United States alone.
WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, on January 30, 2020. It’s the highest level of alarm under international law. Two months later, the organization also named the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak a pandemic, indicating it was not containable (SN: 3/11/20).
These declarations came at a scary and chaotic time: Countries initiated lockdown measures to prevent spread of the disease; there were way more questions than answers about the deadly disease, and no treatments or vaccines.
WHO’s designations prompted nations to work together, collaboratively collecting and sharing COVID-19 data including confirmed cases, hospital admissions, deaths and research. Since then, tests, vaccines and treatments have been developed. More than 13 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide.
Even as the global public health emergency ends, the WHO noted remaining challenges to keeping the disease in check, including global inequities in accessing care and vaccines, an evolving virus and “pandemic fatigue” (SN: 1/13/23).
What long-term management of the disease will look like remains to be seen; WHO plans to form a committee to examine that question. The agency will also continue monitoring the disease, but it will be integrated into a system that’s used to survey global influenza data.
But the end of the PHEIC may also mean that COVID-19 tracking data — already incomplete for a variety of reasons including the proliferation of at-home testing — will decline even more, Chin-Hong says. And researchers might have less available funding, which could slow the development of new vaccines and treatments. “There are repercussions both from a research perspective and a clinical care perspective,” he says.
In a May 5 news conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries to keep their COVID-19 systems in place and remind people that SARS-CoV-2 is still dangerous.
“This virus is here to stay,” he said. “It’s still killing, and it’s still changing.”