Covid-19 emergency is officially over – what does that mean?

Firemen sterilize Wuhan railway station on March 24, 2020 in Wuhan, China, at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. 2019 Tpg

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the end to the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic after an estimated 20 million deaths worldwide. An explainer looking at the implications of this decision in Switzerland and beyond.

This content was published on May 11, 2023

Why did the WHO end the global health emergency?

On May 5 the WHO announced that Covid is no longer a “public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC” – the highest possible status under international health regulations, which was first applied to Covid on January 30, 2020. This change follows advice from WHO experts.

Its lifting is a sign of the progress made in the past 12 months. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic had been “on a downward trend for more than a year, with population immunity increasing from vaccination and infection”.

What are the practical consequences of this decision?

This will not change much for the average citizen. But the WHO decision will serve as a signal to states and health systems around the world. Countries will likely scale back lab capacity, access to countermeasures such as drugs and vaccines, and Covid emergency care infrastructure.

“The end of the pandemic emergency will not at all mean eradication of the virus, but rather entry into a post-pandemic phase where we will have to learn how to better manage prevention, continue monitoring, look after long Covid cases, and continue research,” Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, wrote in a tweet.

Switzerland is clarifying the impact of the WHO decision on the national pandemic strategy, such as the monitoring of the epidemiological situation, but the impact is “likely to be negligible”, Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) spokesperson Simon Ming told SWI

Many countries have long dropped many of their pandemic restrictions. Switzerland announced the lifting of all Covid-19 restrictions as of April 1, 2022. 

The US is due to stop reporting or monitoring Covid-19 case data and transmission rates after the government ends the pandemic’s public health emergency designation next week. China says it will continue to monitor mutations of the virus, strengthen vaccinations among high risk and key groups, and look to improve Covid treatment capabilities.

Is Covid-19 still a pandemic?

Despite progress in fighting Covid-19, health officials warn the virus will not fade away.

“The emergency phase is over, but Covid is not… while we’re not in crisis mode, we can’t let our guard down,” said Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid, on May 5.

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Covid-19 will now be managed alongside other infectious diseases, but the risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths, warns Tedros.

Worldwide, as of May 3 the disease had officially claimed more than 6.9 million lives and infected more than 765 million people. The WHO admits that the true number of victims could be three times higher. It said in early May that Covid deaths globally had fallen by 95% since January. But in April there were nearly three million cases and more than 17,000 deaths reported, including spikes in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

People should not drop all Covid-19 protections, says Simon Clarke, an associate professor of microbiology at Britain’s University of Reading. “The message to the public should still be to take care and think of others. If you’re ill with a respiratory infection, like a bad cough, don’t put others at risk, especially those who are vulnerable,” he told AP. “If you’re fit and young, Covid can still be nasty, and if you’re old and frail, it can kill you.”

What is the Covid-19 situation in Switzerland, and how will we know if it spikes again?

The number of new lab-confirmed cases has fallen considerably since the start of the year, when federal authorities stopped covering the costs of tests. Covid meanwhile continues to circulate in Switzerland, albeit at a low level.

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The FOPH monitors the spread of the disease using various indicators and tools such as analysis of wastewater and the number of official positive Covid tests, hospital admissions and deaths.

“In the long term it can be assumed that SARS-CoV-2 will become similar to other respiratory viruses. The FOPH is therefore striving for integrative surveillance of respiratory viruses. The existing surveillance systems for SARS-CoV-2 serve to collect different indicators and complement each other accordingly,” said the health office spokesperson.

The ongoing monitoring systems will be adapted and, where appropriate, expanded to include other viral respiratory pathogens (such as influenza viruses and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), the FOPH says.

Meanwhile, the authorities are not recommending a Covid-19 vaccination for spring/summer 2023. “Nearly everyone in Switzerland has been vaccinated and/or contracted and recovered from Covid-19. Their immune system has therefore been exposed to the coronavirus. In spring/summer 2023 the virus will likely circulate less,” the FOPH said on April 3.

Although Covid-19 seems to be already ancient history for most Swiss, voters are being asked to decide – for the third time – on the law governing measures to control the pandemic. The referendum, tabled by two citizens’ movements opposed to the measures, above all targets the legal provisions governing the issuing of Covid certificates and the SwissCovid contract-tracing application. Its chances of success at the ballot box are slim.

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