The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, announced on Friday that COVID-19 no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). This comes after more than three years of declaring the outbreak a PHEIC in January 2020, about six weeks before characterizing it as a pandemic.
The WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee discussed the pandemic at its 15th meeting on COVID-19 and decided that the PHEIC declaration should come to an end. “The Committee’s position has been evolving over the last several months. While acknowledging the remaining uncertainties posed by the potential evolution of SARS-CoV-2, they advised that it is time to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement read.
The WHO Director-General concurred with the Committee’s advice and determined that COVID-19 is now an established and ongoing health issue that no longer constitutes a PHEIC. The WHO Director-General considered the advice provided by the Committee regarding the proposed Temporary Recommendations and issued them as per the statement.
The global health body said that while the global risk assessment remains high, there is evidence of reducing risks to human health driven mainly by high population-level immunity from infection, vaccination, or both; consistent virulence of currently circulating SARS-CoV-2 Omicron sub-lineages compared to previously circulating sub-lineages; and improved clinical case management.
“These factors have contributed to a significant global decline in the weekly number of COVID-19-related deaths, hospitalizations, and admissions to intensive care units since the beginning of the pandemic. While SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve, the currently circulating variants do not appear to be associated with increased severity,” the statement added.
The WHO provided updates on the status of global vaccination and considerations of implications for the potential termination of a PHEIC. The Committee was informed that globally, 13.3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered. Currently, 89% of health workers and 82% of adults over 60 years have completed the primary series, although coverage in these priority groups varies in different regions.
“As requested by the Committee, the WHO Secretariat provided overviews of the status of integration of COVID-19 surveillance into the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System and opportunities to streamline this; the process for issuing Standing Recommendations under the IHR; and the potential regulatory implications for Emergency Use Listed when a PHEIC is terminated,” the statement added.
As the Director-General will continue to authorize the use of the Emergency Use Listing (EUL) procedure, the termination of the PHEIC should not affect access to vaccines and diagnostics that have already received an EUL. States Parties will still be able to access these vaccines and diagnostics (provided the manufacturers continue production).
The statement noted that COVAX will continue to provide funded doses and delivery support throughout 2023 in line with demand.
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