WHO says Covid-19 remains a global health emergency, but pandemic is at a ‘transition point’

Covid-19 remains a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said on Monday, but it acknowledged the pandemic is at a “transition point.”

WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee discussed the pandemic on Friday at its 14th meeting on Covid-19, and Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus concurred that the public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, declaration should continue.

In a statement released on Monday, WHO’s advisory committee said it urged WHO to propose “alternative mechanisms to maintain the global and national focus on COVID-19 after the PHEIC is terminated.”

“Achieving higher levels of population immunity globally, either through infection and/or vaccination, may limit the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on morbidity and mortality, but there is little doubt that this virus will remain a permanently established pathogen in humans and animals for the foreseeable future. As such, long-term public health action is critically needed,” the committee said in a statement on Monday. “While eliminating this virus from human and animal reservoirs is highly unlikely, mitigation of its devastating impact on morbidity and mortality is achievable and should continue to be a prioritized goal.”

In a list of temporary recommendations, Tedros said countries should continue vaccinating people and incorporate Covid-19 vaccines into routine care; improve disease surveillance; maintain a strong health care system to avoid a “a panic-neglect cycle”; continue to fight misinformation; and adjust international travel measures based on risk assessment.

The organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a PHEIC in January 2020, about six weeks before characterizing it as a pandemic.

A PHEIC creates an agreement between countries to abide by WHO’s recommendations for managing the emergency. Each country, in turn, declares its own public health emergency – declarations that carry legal weight. Countries use them to marshal resources and waive rules in order to ease a crisis.

The US also remains under its own public health emergency declaration, which US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra renewed most recently January 11.

More than 170,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the past eight weeks, Tedros said last week when he announced the committee meeting, and even though the world is better equipped to manage the pandemic than it was three years ago, he remains “very concerned by the situation in many countries and the rising number of deaths.”

While global Covid-19 deaths are trending upward, the seven-day average remains significantly lower than previous points of the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Last week, ahead of the committee meeting, Tedros pleaded with countries not to let up on the fight against Covid-19.

“My message is clear: Do not underestimate this virus,” he said. “It has and will continue to surprise us, and it will continue to kill unless we do more to get health tools to people that need them and to comprehensively tackle misinformation.”

A ‘wake-up call’ for future outbreaks

Also on Monday, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released two new reports that warned “all countries remain dangerously unprepared for future outbreaks.”

IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain said the Covid-19 pandemic should be “a wake-up call.”

“The next pandemic could be just around the corner; if the experience of COVID-19 won’t quicken our steps toward preparedness, what will?,” he said in a news release.

The reports say that much of the Covid-19 crisis’ impacts on countries, such as job loss and poverty, learning loss, food insecurity and increased mental health issues could have been avoided if governments invested in emergency preparedness. They recommend countries prepare for simultaneous hazards, such as disease outbreaks and extreme weather events.

“We need to start preparing now, because our world is becoming increasingly hazardous,” the IFRC’s World Disasters report 2022 said, noting that many of the disasters are propelled by climate change. “In 2021, 378 disasters were recorded – not including disease outbreaks – which is higher than the 20-year average of 337 disasters per year. Many countries had to respond to hazards like hurricanes and floods while also dealing with COVID-19.”

The report urges “action at the community level” to prepare for disaster on the front lines, and to address existing economic and racial inequities so that they aren’t exacerbated when disaster strikes.

The IFRC’s Everyone Counts Report 2023 also emphasizes “local resilience,” by building up and investing in communities’ “public health, sanitation, shelter and economic security.”

Ultimately, the report states, “Nobody is safe until everybody is safe. The pandemic is not over and nor is the response.”


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