In-Depth: The challenges of unwinding the WHO's pandemic declaration

WHO World Health Organization
Posted at 6:46 PM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 23:43:15-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – A lot of us are looking forward to the day when the World Health Organization declares the COVID-19 pandemic officially over. That topic will come up for a vote next month.

A WHO votes every three months on whether to extend the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) for COVID-19. Top health officials have signaled they will likely extend the declaration again.

“The pandemic is far from over,” WHO COVID-19 technical lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said this week. “We cannot allow this virus to spread at such an intense level.”

In California, state health officials will no longer require masks indoors at K-12 schools after Friday. For many San Diegans, there is a sense we’re entering a post-pandemic world.

But in interviews, local infectious disease experts say the WHO is likely to take a cautious approach to lifting the PHEIC because the declaration has important legal and logistical consequences.

While the PHEIC is in effect, more than 190 countries are legally required to follow WHO guidelines and drugmakers have granted lower-income countries special access to life-saving products.

Moderna has pledged not to enforce its COVID-19 vaccine patent while the emergency is in effect. Pfizer and Merck are allowing generic manufacturers to produce their COVID-19 antiviral pills.

“If the emergency stops, those companies would be entitled to stop doing that,” said Dr. Christian Ramers, an infectious disease specialist and the Chief of Population Health at Family Health Centers of San Diego.

Since 2007, the WHO has declared five other international emergencies. COVID is now the second-longest event.

In 2014, the WHO named poliovirus a PHEIC. That declaration is still in effect nearly eight years later.

“We could see places in the world where this still is a public health emergency for years to come,” said UC San Diego infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Schooley.

“I think in the West, and by that I mean the US and Europe, we’ll see periodic bumps in cases. I don’t think we’ll see anything quite as dramatic as delta or omicron, but we’re going to have to keep our vaccination rates up to prevent that from happening,” he added.