The World Health Organization says COVID-19 is no longer a global emergency

The World Health Organization on Friday declared COVID-19 over as a global health emergency, marking a historic end to devastating chapter of the pandemic that claimed more than 7 million lives worldwide.

The WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, 2020, when only 100 cases were reported and the virus had no official name, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a news conference Friday.

More than three years later, the pandemic is finally on a downward trend as the population increases from vaccination and infection.

“This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19,” Tedros said. “It’s with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency.”

“That doesn’t mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat,” he said, adding the virus continued to claim a life every three seconds last week. The director said he wouldn’t hesitate to reconcile experts to reassess the situation should COVID-19 “put our world in peril.”

The virus has caused an estimated 764 million cases globally and about 5 billion people have received at least one dose of vaccine.

In the US, the public health emergency declaration is set to expire May 11, when wide-ranging measures to support the pandemic response, including vaccine mandates, will end. Many other countries, including Germany, France and Britain, dropped many of their provisions against the pandemic last year.

When Tedros declared COVID-19 to be an emergency in 2020, he said his greatest fear was the virus’ potential to spread in countries with weak health systems that he described as “ill-prepared.”

In fact, some of the countries that suffered the worst COVID-19 death tolls were previously judged to be the best-prepared for a pandemic, including the US and Britain. According to WHO data, the number of deaths reported in Africa accounts for just 3% of the global total.

WHO made its decision to lower its highest level of alert after convening an expert group Thursday. The UN agency doesn’t “declare” pandemics, but first used the term to describe the outbreak in March 2020 when the virus had spread to every continent except Antarctica, long after many other scientists had said a pandemic was already underway.

WHO is the only agency mandated to coordinate the world’s response to acute health threats, but the organization has failed repeatedly as the coronavirus unfolded. In January 2020, WHO publicly applauded China for its supposedly speedy and transparent response, even though recordings of private meetings obtained by The Associated Press showed top officials were frustrated at the country’s lack of cooperation.

WHO also recommended against members of the public wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 for months, a mistake many health officials say costs lives.

Numerous scientists also slammed WHO’s reluctance to acknowledge that COVID-19 was frequently spread in the air and by people without symptoms, criticizing the agency’s lack of strong guidance to prevent such exposure.

Tedros was a vociferous critic of rich countries who hoarded the limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, warning that the world was on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” by failing to share shots with poor countries.

Most recently, WHO has been struggling to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, a challenging scientific endeavor that has also become a political fraught.

After a week-long visit to China, WHO released a report in 2021 concluding that COVID-19 was most likely to jump into humans from animals, dismissing the possibility that it originated in a lab as “extremely unlikely.”

But the UN agency backtracked the following year, saying “key pieces of data” were still missing and that it was premature to rule out that COVID-19 might have ties to a lab.

A panel commissioned by WHO to review its performance criticized China and other countries for not moving quicker to stop the virus and said the organization was constrained both by its limited finances and inability to compel countries to act.

Contributing: Associated Press. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Health Organization downgrades COVID, says no longer emergency

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