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WHO announces that COVID-19 is no longer a global emergency

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Today, the head of the World Health Organization held a press conference to make this major announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TEDROS GHEBREYESUS: It's therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency.

PFEIFFER: With us now is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hi, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: It has been a long, rough road to get here. And even though many people feel like they put COVID behind them a while ago, was there a sense that this is momentous news?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. I mean, I had chills listening to this press conference. You could hear the emotion in the voices of WHO officials. WHO's head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted that it was way back in January 30 of 2020 when he declared that the then-still-pretty-nascent COVID-19 outbreak was a global emergency. And in the more than three years since, as Tedros put it, COVID-19 turned our world upside down, causing nearly 7 million reported deaths around the world, with the actual death toll probably closer to 20 million. And, you know, prior to today, Tedros considered lifting the emergency 14 separate times. But each time, he decided that, no, the world hadn't made enough progress.

PFEIFFER: Did he say what convinced him it's different this time?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. He said the mortality rate is now low enough and immunity is high enough that most countries have been able to return to life as we knew it before COVID. And so it's time to shift from the emergency phase into managing this as a chronic problem alongside other chronic diseases.

PFEIFFER: So it sounds like they're not actually saying the pandemic is over.

AIZENMAN: Exactly. What they're saying is that this is no longer an emergency. But Tedros stressed that this is still a pandemic. COVID is still a big killer, and it's still a global threat. Countries need to keep up with their response and, very importantly, their monitoring for new variants that could make the coronavirus much more deadly. Tedros said if that happens, he won't hesitate to declare a new global emergency.

PFEIFFER: And, Nurith, remind us - if he were to do that, what does it mean when the World Health Organization takes that step?

AIZENMAN: It's basically the highest alarm WHO can sound. Now, it's largely symbolic in that it doesn't trigger binding rules on countries, but it's a very powerful tool for mobilizing the world's attention and resources. It makes it much easier to set up all kinds of mechanisms for countries to coordinate with each other and to fast-track regulatory approvals on vaccines and treatments. That said, WHO is calling on countries to hammer out an agreement for a new and improved system. They say so many COVID deaths could have been avoided if countries had moved faster and smarter and shared more vaccines and other resources. Maria Van Kerkhove is a top WHO official. She spoke very passionately about this. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: It didn't have to be this way, and it doesn't have to be this way again. So we can't forget the images of the hospitals filled to capacity, the images of our loved ones who died with health care workers who ensured that they didn't die alone. We can't forget the graves that were dug. I won't forget them. None of us up here will forget them. And that drives us every single day to do better and to do more. So while I am hopeful - and I really am - I'm quite emotional because there's more we need to do.

PFEIFFER: Quite a reminder of what we all went through, especially people in the health care field.

AIZENMAN: Yeah, definitely.

PFEIFFER: That is Nurith Aizenman. Nurith, thank you very much.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nurith Aizenman