The World Health Organization announced Friday it would declare an end to the global COVID-19 emergency, urging countries to begin transitioning their response to a virus that it warns still remains a global health threat.
“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,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, told reporters Friday.
WHO’s move follows a meeting of the United Nations agency’s emergency committee Thursday, more than three years after the panel had first recommended in 2020 that the WHO declare an emergency over the outbreak in China.
Several nations have already ended their own national COVID-19 emergencies, or plan to do so soon.
The Biden administration is allowing its public health emergency declaration to expire on May 11. The president has already signed a bill to end a separate “national emergency” for COVID-19.
Next month, many other U.S. efforts to curb the virus — like vaccination requirements or earlier metrics to measure transmission of the virus — that had been stood up earlier in the pandemic will also be changed or ended.
The WHO’s emergency committee had recommended last year that the WHO begin preparing for when COVID-19 would no longer be a “public health emergency of international concern” under international law, laying out criteria and precautions for the shift.
“This tool should not be overused because it is not adapted to events which become subacute or chronic, which is the case presently with the COVID 19 epidemic,” said Didier Houssin, chair of the panel.
Houssin said the WHO would instead activate a never-before-used provision within its international health regulations to form a committee tasked with “standing recommendations rather than just temporary recommendations” on how countries should respond to COVID-19’s ongoing threat.
“Members are aware that the production of standing recommendations will take a few months because it requires the constitution of a specific review committee,” said Houssin.
Tedros said his decision Friday was both a moment for “reflection” as well as “celebration.”
“We have arrived at this moment, thanks to the incredible skill and selfless dedication of health and care workers around the world, the innovation of vaccine researchers and developers, the tough decisions governments have had to make in the face of changing evidence, and the sacrifices that all of us have made,” he said.
He urged countries not to allow capacities built up in response to the pandemic to “go to waste.” The WHO’s Dr. Mike Ryan said he hoped the move would help spur on current international negotiations over a new pandemic accord.
“I think this adds urgency to the discussions on the accord,” Ryan said.
Talks have been ongoing at a fifth summit that is expected to wrap up this month over the agreement, which aims to reform responsibilities and roles for responding to public health threats at the WHO and between countries.
U.S. negotiators acknowledged earlier this year after the fourth meeting that “much work remains to be done” to make the agreement “implementable for the United States.”
“It is a massive responsibility for world leaders to come together heads of state, ministers of health, other ministers and civil society to agree on a new, a solemn agreement for how we move forward together on this planet. We all inhabit this planet together,” said Ryan.
How many people have died from COVID?
WHO reports some 7 million confirmed deaths from COVID-19 worldwide since the virus was first identified in an outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
There have been more than 765 million confirmed cases of the disease, and new variants continue to emerge, raising concerns about ongoing spread.
According to WHO, more than 13 billion doses of vaccine have been administered to people around the globe. “COVID-19 vaccines provide strong protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death,” the organization advises, “but some people will still get ill from COVID-19 after vaccination.”
COVID was the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week.