Is the COVID-19 pandemic about to be officially over?
The World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, is set to consider ending the global health emergency declaration issued on Jan. 30, 2020, nearly six weeks before declaring COVID-19 as a pandemic.
Friday, a WHO emergency committee will discuss whether to recommend the agency’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, lift what’s known as the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency of International Concern, according to a report in STAT.
But the Boston-based medical journalism publication said ending the emergency order “would not be a declaration that COVID no longer poses a threat to the world, nor would it constitute a declaration by the WHO that the pandemic is over.”
That’s because the WHO has no mechanism for formally declaring when a pandemic starts or ends, STAT said, even though Tedros’ March 11, 2020 announcement that COVID-19 was a pandemic is widely seen as a formal declaration.
“We don’t declare pandemics,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s leading coronavirus expert, told STAT.
In the United States, President Joe Biden said the COVID-19 pandemic was over during an interview last September. Administration officials later said Biden was referring to Americans’ attitude toward the virus and that it continues to be a serious concern.
Under an international health regulations treaty, a global health emergency declaration gives the WHO the power to issue temporary recommendations to countries, although they are not always followed.
In addition to COVID-19, emergency declarations have been made for a variety of outbreaks around the world, including H1N1 flu; Ebola, Zika, polio and mpox, formerly called monkeypox. Most of those declarations ended once disease transmission largely stopped.
Tedros, who has the final say over what will happen to the COVID-19 global health emergency order, seemed to suggest during the WHO’s weekly press briefing Tuesday that he may not be ready yet to see it go.
“While I will not preempt the advice of the emergency committee, I remain very concerned by the situation in many countries and the rising number of deaths,” the director general told reporters.
“While we’re clearly in better shape than three years ago when this pandemic first hit, the global collective response is once again under strain,” he said, calling the actual death toll “much higher” than the 170,000 lives reportedly lost worldwide over the past eight weeks.
The world’s most populous country, China, is believed to be underreporting the impact of a massive outbreak of the virus following the government’s recent decision to abruptly drop strict “zero COVID” policies.