WHO declares end to COVID-19 global health emergency

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Friday the end of its global emergency declaration for COVID-19, a milestone that came with encouragement to continue monitoring the disease that has killed more than 6.9 million people in more than three years.

The decision follows a Thursday advisory meeting of international health experts to gauge the threat COVID-19 poses to the world community and what recommendations WHO should be giving to world leaders.

Though it acknowledged “the remaining uncertainties” that may come with the virus’ evolution, the panel advised WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “that it is time to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to WHO.

“It’s therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” Ghebreyesus announced during a Friday press conference.

WHO initially declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, 2020.

As of May 3, the organization reported over 765 million confirmed cases and 6.9 million cumulative deaths attributed to the disease. These numbers are likely an undercount, with WHO estimating that the death toll is likely closer to 20 million.

The director-general and other WHO leaders said that countries around the world have reported “a downward trend” in new cases, deaths and pressure on their health systems over the last several months.

Still, the director-general warned that cases are still cropping up and that ongoing health issues like “long COVID” warrant continued attention from world governments. In particular, WHO recommended that countries prioritize vaccination efforts and research, restore any public health programs that were weakened during the pandemic response and continue surveillance programs to catch any changes in the disease.

“Epidemiologically, this virus will continue to cause waves,” said Maria Van Kerhove, COVID-19 technical and health operations lead at WHO, during a press conference. “What we are hopeful of is that we have the tools in place to ensure that the future waves do not result in more severe disease, don’t result in waves of death. And we can do that with the tools we have at hand, we just need to make sure that we are tracking the virus because it will continue to evolve.”

WHO’s declaration matches governments’ de-escalation of emergency COVID-19 measures, and the U.S. is no exception.

President Joe Biden signed a resolution ending the COVID-19 national emergency last month and the public health emergency is slated to wind down on May 11. The latter will be accompanied by an end to numerous flexibilities and waivers affecting healthcare coverage and virtual care, though certain extensions of the latter have been supported by industry, legislators and government agencies.