COVID may no longer be a global health emergency, but virus hasn’t disappeared into the background | UK News

The declaration that COVID is no longer a global health emergency is an historic moment.

It can be seen as an official declaration of the end of a pandemic that in three years killed nearly seven million people globally and made billions sick.

In itself, it is a bureaucratic step. When the WHO declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) it requires countries to formally report statistics, take steps to protect citizens and travellers, and conduct surveillance for the virus.

For many countries, such as the UK, the decision will make little difference to what we were doing anyway.

But in places with poorly resourced healthcare systems, it could free up capacity to deal with the other major disease threats including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria which have continued throughout the pandemic – 650,000 people alone died with HIV in 2021.

And in many ways, it’s time.

More than 5.5 billion people have now received a COVID vaccine – more than 70% of the world’s population. Nearly all who haven’t will have been infected and most likely re-infected with the virus itself.

The development of the COVID vaccine has sped up research into treatment for serious health conditions including cancer.
The development of the COVID vaccine has sped up research into treatment for serious health conditions including cancer.

This growing global immunity has translated into a steady decline in deaths from a peak in January 2021.

The only exception was a major spike in January of this year after China lifted its zero-COVID policy and the virus was able to infect millions of un-or under-vaccinated people.

Now, COVID deaths are at their lowest since March 2020.

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But the WHO hasn’t made this decision lightly – the unintended consequences could be grave.

The virus hasn’t disappeared into the background like its viral cousins, the seasonal common cold.

New variants, the latest called XB.1.16, is on the march in places like the Indian sub-continent causing waves of infection and hospitalising hundreds of thousands of people.

And there are also millions of people living with a complex array of post-COVID conditions that will be a burden on health systems for years to come.

Continued surveillance for new forms of this virus or others, and efforts to improve vaccine availability – especially in the poorest countries – are essential.

They are key to protecting the world from anything the constantly evolving coronavirus might throw at us, as well as seeing the next pandemic coming before it is too late.

Already, according to the WHO, surveillance and genetic sequencing efforts have already declined “significantly” around the world.

If countries interpret the end of this emergency as a cue to return to business as usual, we will have forgotten the biggest lesson the pandemic has taught us.

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