Covid-19 is “no longer a global health emergency” in the view of the World Health Organization (WHO), which has downgraded the threat level posed by the coronavirus following three years at the highest state of alert.
Speaking at a news conference on 5 May, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic has been on a “downward trend” for more than a year, with population immunity increasing due to vaccinations and infections, leading to reduced mortality and an easing of pressure on health services. “This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before covid-19,” he said.
“Yesterday, the emergency committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern [PHEIC],” he added. “I have accepted that advice”.
Covid-19 was declared a PHEIC on 30 January 2020, after the initial outbreak of the virus in China in December 2019 had spread to 18 other countries.
It is the highest alarm the WHO can sound of a global threat to public health, with such events deemed to be extraordinary, to constitute an international public health threat and to require a coordinated international response.
Ending the PHEIC declaration is a major symbolic step towards the end of the pandemic. It also means that countries are no longer obliged to share health data with the WHO.
Since 2020, covid-19 has infected more than 765 million people and killed more than 7 million worldwide, according to the WHO. But thanks to mutations in the virus and a global vaccine rollout, the disease is now less likely to cause serious illness.
Many countries have already returned to near-normal in recent months, with restrictions on social distancing, mask wearing and testing dropped by many governments, including those of the US and the UK.
But Tedros warned that the coronavirus is “here to stay”, stressing that countries will now need to transition towards managing the virus in the same way as other infectious diseases, such as flu.
“It is still killing and it is still changing. The risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths,” he said. “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.”
While the emergency committee will now be disbanded, a new review committee will be established to develop long-term recommendations to advise countries on managing covid-19 on an ongoing basis, Tedros added.