WHO Experts Confer on Possible End to COVID International Health Emergency
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gehebreyesus (left) and Didier Houssin, chair of the WHO Emergency Committee. on 30 January 2020, when the COVID International Health Emergency was first declared.

The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee on the COVID-19 pandemic was meeting Friday evening – with mixed signals emerging about whether the expert advisory group would recommend that the global health agency end the state of international public health emergency over the virus whose emergence stunned the world a little more than three years ago.

At a press conference in December 2022, WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed hopes that the emergency that he first declared on 30 January, 2020, under WHO’s International Health Regulations, could finally be concluded sometime in 2023.

But in his remarks to the Emergency Committee’s 14th meeting, the WHO Director General hinted for a second time this week that the time may not yet be ripe – as cases of new infection increased again worldwide only recently and a new wave of the virus continues to rip through China shortly after strict lockdown policies were finally relaxed.

“As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we are certainly in a much better position now than we were a year ago, when the Omicron wave was at its peak, and more than 70,000 deaths were being reported to WHO each week,” said Tedros in his remarks at the closed meeting, reported by WHO in a press release.

“When you last met in October, the number of weekly reported deaths was near the lowest since the pandemic began – less than 10,000 a week,” he added.  “However, since the beginning of December, the number of weekly reported deaths globally has been rising.”

China trends create a second level of concerns

Following a massive wave of protests in autumn 2022, China lifted most of its COVID restrictions – which had been among the strictest in the world.

In addition, Tedros noted, the lifting of COVID restrictions in China has led to a spike in deaths in the world’s most populous nation, whose citizens were poorly protected by vaccinations as well as having low natural immunity thanks to months of social isolation.

“Last week, almost 40 thousand deaths were reported to WHO, more than half of them from China,” Tedros said. “In total, over the past eight weeks, more than 170,000 deaths have been reported. The actual number is certainly much higher.”

Earlier this week, Tedros also expressed his mixed feelings about declaring an end to the pandemic even more bluntly, saying: “While I will not preempt the advice of the emergency committee, I remain very concerned by the situation in many countries and the rising number of deaths,” he said, speaking at WHO’s weekly press briefing.

“While we’re clearly in better shape than three years ago when this pandemic first hit, the global collective response is once again under strain.”

In fact, after reaching a peak in mid-December, the wave of new cases in China and worldwide have been declining for the past month – both according to WHO data and other data monitoring platforms. However, in light of the reduced amount of COVID testing worldwide, the confirmed case count is an increasingly unreliable measure of true cases.

“Surveillance and genetic sequencing have declined dramatically around the world, making it more difficult to track known variants and detect new ones,” Tedros told the committee at the outset of Friday’s meeting.

Revolution in vaccines, treatments and diagnostics has not reached everyone

Related to that, the global response to COVID remains “hobbled” because “powerful, life-saving tools are still not getting to the population that need them most – especially older people and health workers, Tedros said.

“Many health systems around the world are struggling to cope with COVID-19, on top of caring for patients with other diseases including influenza and RSV, and with work shortages and fatigued health workers.

“And public trust in the safe and effective tools for controlling COVID-19 is being undermined by a continuous torrent of mis- and disinformation.”

It was unclear as to whether the committee’s deliberations would continue into the weekend, or when their conclusions will finally be announced.

However, there was speculation that their report might only be published on Monday, when the WHO Executive Board, WHO’s governing body, begins its first annual round of meetings for 2023.  Among the nearly 50 items on the week-long agenda are a raft of reports and recommendations on strengthening global preparedness and response to health emergencies.

The WHO Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) was declared in the framework of the 2005 International Health Regulations, which constitute a legally binding agreement between WHO member states regarding emergency outbreak and response. In March 2020, Tedros also declared that the emergency also constituted a “pandemic” – although there is in fact no legal provision for a pandemic declaration in the IHR.

However, the weaknesses in the IHR system of outbreak alerts, notification and resonses, highlighted by the faltering and inconsistent reponse to the COVID pandemic, have paved the way for major reconsideration of global pandemic response frameworks, with debates over a new pandemic treaty, as well as IHR revisions, set to continue throughout 2023 and into 2024.  See related story here:

Governing Pandemics Snapshot


Image Credits: Twitter: @WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.