By Fidelis Rukwaro

Following a recommendation made by the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Committee for COVID-19, the disease will no longer be categorized as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

A PHEIC is declared when an emergency is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” with its effects going beyond the affected country’s border. The declaration helps set coordinated international legal measures and responses.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General noted that despite the removal of the PHEIC status, COVID-19 is still a global health threat. The lifting of the status shows that progress has been made towards curbing the pandemic, he said.

Dr. Ghebreyesus noted that for over 12 months, the pandemic “has been on a downward trend”, with immunity increasing due to the highly effective vaccines developed in record time to fight the disease, and infections. Death rates have decreased and the pressure on once-overwhelmed health systems has eased.

“This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19,” he added.

Noting that the decision marks a historic milestone, Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance called for the need for increased vaccination.

“We must also be clear about the need to continue to protect our most vulnerable people, as we do for other deadly but preventable diseases. Around three out of ten older adults in lower-income countries have not yet received two doses, and we know they are among those most likely to become severely ill or die from COVID-19,” he said.

COVAX, an initiative made up of Gavi and other partners, has supported vaccination efforts in lower-income countries. Globally, only 64% of the population has received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while the number stands at 55% on average in the 92 lowest-income countries (compared to 28% at the beginning of 2022).

COVAX has delivered nearly 2 billion doses to 146 countries and dedicated more than US$ 1.6bn to help countries turn vaccines into vaccinations, and strengthen health systems.