Covid-19 is likely to be downgraded from a public health emergency of international concern this year, as it shifts to a similar level of risk as flu, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“We’re coming to that point where we can look at covid-19 in the same way we look at seasonal influenza,” said the WHO’s Michael Ryan at a press conference today. “A threat to health, a virus that will continue to kill. But a virus that is not disrupting our society or disrupting our hospital systems.”
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement at the press conference. “We’re certainly in a much better position now than we have been at any time during the pandemic,” he said.
The WHO declared covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern, its highest level of threat, in January 2020, after coronavirus cases had been steadily rising in China and had been confirmed in 18 other countries. Two months later, the organisation said the phenomenon had become a pandemic, usually taken to mean that an illness is spreading in multiple countries, although there is no universally agreed definition.
While the coronavirus is still widely circulating, it is now less likely to cause serious illness, as most people have had it at least once, many have been vaccinated multiple times and the current omicron variants are less virulent than some past variants.
“It’s very pleasing to see that, for the first time, the weekly number of reported deaths in the past four weeks has been lower than when we first used the word ‘pandemic’ three years ago,” said Ghebreyesus. “I’m confident that, this year, we will be able to say that covid-19 is over as a public health emergency of international concern. We are not there yet.”
A WHO committee has been reviewing the criteria that would mean the threat from covid-19 could be downgraded, but hasn’t yet reached a decision.
“We are on a positive trajectory,” said Ryan. “The virus will represent less and less of a threat to society, where surges in virus transmission would not be associated with higher rates of hospital admission,” said Ryan. “We’ve begun to see that in the last six months, where a surge in infection has not been associated with sustained pressure on the health system, because rates of vaccination are high enough.”
Ryan added, however, that many countries still had gaps in vaccination coverage and in access to antiviral treatments for those who are medically vulnerable. “We’ve got to protect communities who might be vulnerable to severe disease,” he said. And if the virus evolves to become more virulent, “all bets are off”, he said.
However, Stephen Griffin at the University of Leeds, UK, who is a member of iSAGE, an independent group of scientists, says the WHO’s plans are premature. “Most worrying is the continued isolation and discrimination against the millions of clinically vulnerable people, especially those unable to make effective vaccine responses,” he says.