(GENEVA) — The World Health Organization on Friday said it was downgrading COVID-19 and no longer characterizing it as a global health emergency.
The U.N. health agency first declared the coronavirus to be an international crisis on Jan. 30, 2020.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the change during a media briefing held with reporters at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
But he clarified that this does not mean the pandemic is over.
“It is with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” he said. “However, that does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat. Last week, COVID-19 claimed a life every three minutes — and that’s just the deaths we know about.”
The downgrade comes with the pandemic on a “downward trend” for more than a year due to growing immunity among the global population — both from vaccination and infection — as well as a decreasing number of deaths, according to Tedros. This has also led to health systems no longer feeling as a much of a burden as they once did.
“This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before,” he said.
Tedros recounted the early days of the pandemic, noting that when it first declared COVID-19 to be a public health emergency, China reported fewer than 100 cases and no deaths.
He said that seven million COVID-19 deaths have been reported to WHO, but officials believe the true toll to be at least 20 million. In the U.S., more than 1.1 million deaths have been recorded, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“But COVID-19 has been so much more than a health crisis,” Tedros said. “It has caused severe economic upheaval, erasing trillions from GDP, disrupting travel and trade, shuttering businesses and plunging millions into poverty.”
He continued, “It has caused severe social upheaval, with borders closed, movement restricted, schools shut and millions of people experiencing loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression.”
And despite the downgrade, there are still thousands of people dying every day as well as being hospitalized due to complications from the virus.
Tedros warned against countries letting their guard down and said they must remain vigilant in case a new highly infectious variant emerges.
“I emphasize that this is not a snap decision. 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,” he said. “If need be, I will not hesitate to convene another Emergency Committee should COVID-19 once again put our world in peril.”
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