The shift in status “does not mean that covid-19 is over as a global health threat,” Tedros said. “Last week covid-19 claimed a life every three minutes. And that’s just the deaths we know about.”
Although a milestone in the course of the global response to the pandemic, the change may not mean much in practice for many governments that have already lifted their emergency declarations, or will do so soon. The Biden administration is set to end the U.S. public health emergency status for the pandemic on May 11.
The WHO declared the pandemic a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, 2020, and it has remained under that designation, the global health organization’s highest level of alarm, for more than three years. The virus has claimed more than 6.9 million lives, according to the WHO — including more than 1 million in the United States alone.
Tedros said he made the decision to lift the classification after a recommendation from a team of experts convened by the WHO. In a statement, the WHO said the team had noted the decreasing trend in covid-19 deaths, the decline in covid-related hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions, and increasing levels of immunity to the virus.
“I emphasize that this is not a snap decision,” Tedros said. “It is a decision that has been considered carefully for some time, planned for and made on the basis of a careful analysis of the data.”
According to the WHO, there were 630,979 confirmed global coronavirus cases and 3,568 global deaths in the week that ended April 24 — the lowest levels since the early days of the pandemic. But experts have cautioned that global tracking of covid cases and deaths is probably incomplete, citing patchwork reporting systems that have been rolled back and the growing number of people who test for covid at home, if at all, and opt not to report their results.
Biden administration officials said Friday that they had expected the WHO’s decision, which the global heath agency had telegraphed for weeks. The White House’s own coronavirus response team is disbanding this month, and the administration is planning to lift most federal vaccine mandates next week.
Health officials also have announced several initiatives meant to provide longer-term pandemic protections, including a next-generation vaccine program and a program to cover coronavirus vaccines and treatments for the uninsured.
“As the public health emergency is set to end next week, I do want to just reiterate that we at CDC are not changing the steam at which we are working through this emergency,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a Senate hearing Thursday.
Some of the longer-term efforts announced by the administration are under threat. House Republicans last week passed a bill that would claw back tens of billions of dollars in unspent covid funds, arguing that the pandemic is over and those programs — which include the funding that the White House has earmarked for the next-generation vaccine program — are no longer necessary.
Speaking Friday, Tedros said that covid had left “deep scars on our world” and that it would continue to do so.
The WHO leader said he would be establishing a committee to “develop long-term, standing recommendations” for how countries should manage covid on an ongoing basis, something the agency has never done before.
He also said he would “not hesitate” to convene another group of experts to assess whether covid had become a global health emergency if the virus again puts “our world in peril.”