Three years later, is COVID-19 still a public health emergency of international concern?

Last year, WHO’s chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said he hoped to see an end to the crisis in 2023, but his early optimism has recently been dampened by rising infection and death rates.

Tomorrow (Friday, January 27), the World Health Organization will hold another meeting of its Emergency Committee. The only item on the agenda? Whether today, three years after COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the virus remains one. Under the International Health Regulations, which guide WHO’s mandate, a PHEIC is an “extraordinary event that may constitute a public health risk to other countries through the international spread of disease and may require a coordinated international response.”

Last year, WHO’s chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said he hoped to see an end to the crisis in 2023. His early optimism, however, has recently been dampened by rising infection and death rates, forcing him to express serious reservations about downgrading the COVID-19 pandemic status ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of the Emergency Committee.

“While I will not pre-empt the advice of the Emergency Committee, I remain very concerned about the situation in many countries and the increasing number of deaths,” he declared this week at the organization’s regular press briefing. “The world,” he said, is in “better shape than before” to tackle the crisis. But he also stressed that the global response is once again “stretched,” reminding us that, according to WHO’s figures, 170,000 people have died from COVID-19 in just eight weeks since December. This high figure, coupled with the continuous uncertainty of the situation in China, will bear on the Emergency Committee’s deliberation. The matter is sensitive.

Three years ago, on January 22, 2020, despite information coming from China and elsewhere that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission, and aware of Beijing’s decision to go into lockdown on January 23, the Committee failed to come to an agreement. Precious time was wasted, and it was not until a week later, on January 30, that a PHEIC was eventually declared by the WHO. The delay led governments to question the current system and to initiate a revision of the rules governing health diplomacy.

Today, the Emergency Committee consists of 18 members, who do not report to or represent national governments. Their role is to advise the Director-General based solely on scientific considerations.

“Too many people are missing their boosters, and too many people aren't getting the right care,” Tedros said. “Fragile health systems are struggling to keep up with the situation, and sequencing of the virus is down significantly. Do not underestimate this virus. It will continue to surprise and kill,” the Director-General warned on Tuesday.