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Monday could mark a major milestone in the history of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the World Health Organization (WHO) stands poised to decide whether or not to declare an end to the global public health emergency.
The WHO’s emergency committee on COVID-19 spent Friday deliberating whether the COVID-19 pandemic still meets the strict definition of the agency’s highest risk designation: a “public health emergency of international concern.”
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN IF THE WHO DECIDES TO LIFT THE DESIGNATION?
By declaring a global emergency, the WHO essentially sounded the alarm on a serious worldwide health risk that required international co-operation.
It triggered a legally-binding response among WHO member countries, including Canada, and allowed the organization to make temporary recommendations to those countries to prevent or deal with the threat.
Over the last few years those recommendations have included quarantining infected people and their close contacts and border testing and closures.
The formal designation was made on Jan. 30, 2020, when 99 per cent of confirmed COVID-19 cases were still restricted to China.
Even if that designation is lifted, it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over or that the threat has ended.
WHY IS THE WHO CONSIDERING IT NOW?
Monday marks three years to the day since WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus first declared the then little-understood coronavirus a global health emergency.
Since then, a committee of global experts has met every three months to offer advice on whether the pandemic still meets that definition.
“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 thousand deaths were being reported to WHO each week,” Tedros told the committee Friday.
At the previous meeting in October, he said weekly reported COVID-19 deaths had nearly reached their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.
On Friday though, Tedros appeared to caution the committee against being too optimistic.
He said the number of weekly deaths had been rising since early December, particularly since public health restrictions were lifted in China.
“In total, over the past eight weeks, more than 170 thousand deaths have been reported. The actual number is certainly much higher,” he said.
He also reminded the experts the pandemic response remains “hobbled” in countries without COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.
Even in countries with such tools at their disposal, public trust in those life-saving medicines has been undermined by disinformation campaigns, health systems remain overwhelmed because of staff shortages, and countries have massively scaled down COVID-19 surveillance efforts.
WHAT WILL CANADA DO DIFFERENTLY ONCE THE WHO DECLARES THE EMERGENCY OVER?
Nothing much. At a press conference Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said no matter what the WHO decides, Canada will continue to track cases, serious illnesses and deaths, as well as roll out vaccination campaigns.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths associated with the virus spiked noticeably over Christmas and in early January, Tam said, but all now appear to be trending down.
“We mustn’t, I think, let go of the gains that we’ve had in the last several years,” she said.
“I think whatever the decision is made by the director-general of WHO, I think we just need to keep going with what we’re doing now.”
WHOSE DECISION IS IT TO END THE EMERGENCY?
The final call is ultimately up to Tedros, but he’ll be informed by the advice of the emergency committee.
The group, first struck in 2020 when the threat of COVID-19 first came to light, voted Friday on whether or not to maintain the formal emergency designation.
Tedros is expected to make his decision Monday.
WHEN WILL THE PANDEMIC FINALLY BE OVER?
It’s still difficult to say because COVID-19 is still spreading rampantly around the world.
The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic a month and a half after designating it a global emergency, and at the time Tedros took pains to explain the two classifications are not one and the same.
“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do,” Tedros said on March 11, 2020.
Last fall he declared the end of the pandemic was “in sight,” but it is difficult to say when it will fully come into view.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.