Covid-19 is likely to be downgraded from a public health emergency of international concern this year, as it moves to a similar risk level as influenza, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“We will get to the point where we can look at covid-19 the same way we look at seasonal influenza,” said the WHO’s Michael Ryan in a press conference today. “A health threat, a virus that will continue to kill. But a virus that doesn’t disrupt our society or disrupt our hospital systems.”
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus the announcement was made at the press conference. “We are certainly in a better position now than at any time during the pandemic,” he said.
WHO declared covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern, its highest threat level, in January 2020, after a steady increase in coronavirus cases in China and confirmed in 18 other countries. Two months later, the organization says the phenomenon has become a pandemicoften means that a disease is spreading to many countries, although there is no universally agreed upon definition.
Although the coronavirus is still widely spread, it is less likely to cause serious illness, as most people have had it at least once, many have been vaccinated multiple times and current omicron variants are less virulent than some previous variants.
“It’s great to see that, for the first time, the weekly number of reported deaths in the last four weeks is lower than when we first used the word ‘pandemic’ three years ago,” Ghebreyesus said. “I am confident that, this year, we can say that covid-19 is over as a public health emergency of international concern. We’re not there yet.”
A WHO committee is reviewing the criteria that mean the threat from covid-19 can be downgraded, but has yet to reach a decision.
“We’re on a positive trajectory,” Ryan said. “The virus would represent less of a threat to society, where increases in virus transmission would not be associated with higher rates of hospital admissions,” Ryan said. “We started to see that in the last six months, where the influx of infection is not related to the constant pressure on the health system, because the vaccination rates are high enough.”
Ryan added, however, that many countries still have gaps in vaccination coverage and in access to antiviral treatments for the medically vulnerable. “We need to protect communities that may be vulnerable to serious illness,” he said. And if the virus evolves to be 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, said the WHO’s plans were premature. “Most alarming is the continued segregation and discrimination against millions of clinically vulnerable people, especially those who cannot mount effective vaccine responses,” he said.