Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the Covid-19 pandemic is no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)—the highest possible level of alarm that mandates countries to act under international health regulations.
The WHO said the announcement meant Covid is no longer considered an “unusual or unexpected event”, and it was widely reported as being a major step towards ending the pandemic. However the WHO did not say that the pandemic is over, contrary to some media reports.
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Misleading media coverage
The Sun reported that “the Covid pandemic is officially over, the World Health Organisation has declared”, while Channel 5 News said on social media: “The Covid-19 pandemic is officially over - according to the World Health Organisation.”
LBC used a cropped quote of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in its headline, which read: “'I declare Covid-19 over': World Health Organisation boss says coronavirus is no longer a global emergency”. The article went on to describe the announcement as “a symbolic end to the Covid pandemic”, though it also later referenced an ongoing worldwide death rate from the virus of over 3,500 a week.
Other media outlets described the pandemic as “officially over”, without directly attributing that to the WHO.
A column in the Sunday Times was headlined: “The pandemic is officially over. How did the three years change us?”
And the Mirror started an editorial about long Covid, online and in print, by saying: “The pandemic may be officially over”.
However, the WHO has not declared that the pandemic is officially over.
What did the WHO say?
On Friday 5 May, the WHO held a press conference to mark the release of a strategic plan for transitioning to “longer-term sustained Covid-19 disease prevention, control and management”.
Mr Ghebreyesus said at the meeting: “I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency”. He added: “However, that does not mean that Covid-19 is over as a global health threat. This virus is here to stay. It is still killing and it is still changing.”
While Mr Ghebreyesus did not explicitly address the question of whether Covid remained a pandemic in his comments, the WHO referred in a statement accompanying the announcement to the “ongoing Covid-19 pandemic”.
Another statement on the WHO website says that the decision to downgrade Covid on 5 May “does not mean the pandemic itself is over, but the global emergency it has caused is, for now”.
The WHO told Full Fact it is unlikely the Covid pandemic, which is now in its fourth year, will be declared over in the near future. This contrasts with, for example, the H1N1 pandemic (swine flu), which started in June 2009 and was officially declared over by the WHO in August 2010, although the virus continued to circulate.
It’s worth noting that some diseases may be considered pandemics for many years. In its response to us, the WHO referenced cholera, which has been an ongoing pandemic since 1961.
When deciding whether to downgrade Covid, the WHO’s Emergency Committee considered its criteria for PHEICs, reviewing whether the virus constitutes “1) an extraordinary event, 2) a public health risk to other States through the international spread, and 3) potentially requires a coordinated international response”.
The committee said that “although SARS-CoV-2 has been and will continue circulating widely and evolving, it is no longer an unusual or unexpected event”.
How much of a threat does Covid-19 still pose?
A WHO report published on 3 May, just ahead of the downgrading, said: “Millions of people each week continue to be reported as infected/ reinfected (a recognized underestimate of the true circulation of SARS-CoV-2 at the present time), hundreds of thousands of people are in hospital with Covid-19 and thousands of people are dying each week around the world”.
At the time of writing, the most recent data shows under 100 deaths in the UK have Covid on the death certificate each day, down from the peaks of almost 1,400 a day in April 2020 and January 2021.
Professor Thomas House, Professor of Mathematical Statistics at the University of Manchester, said via the Science Media Centre: “Absence of a PHEIC associated with it does not imply that a disease is not causing significant ongoing mortality and morbidity.
“Infections like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV continue to represent some of the most significant problems to human health worldwide and have never been associated with PHEICs.”
Bad information about health policy can foster distrust of medical professionals, and distract from or undermine medical consensus and public health messaging.
Full Fact has contacted all the media outlets mentioned above for comment. The Sun told us it stood by its reporting. The Mirror declined to comment. LBC, Channel 5 and the Sunday Times have not responded at the time of writing.
Featured image courtesy of United States Mission Geneva