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WHO says COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's official. After three years of illness and millions of deaths, the World Health Organization made a historic announcement just moments ago.

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

FADEL: The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, at a news conference just minutes ago. NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman is here to tell us more. Hi.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: OK. So it's been more than three years since the WHO declared this global emergency. So what does it actually mean to declare it not a global emergency anymore?

AIZENMAN: Yeah, right. So back on January 30, 2020, when the coronavirus was still mainly limited to China - fewer than a hundred reported cases outside of China - the WHO's head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, used these special powers that he has under an international health agreement to declare this situation - that it was already, quote, "a public health emergency of international concern." And that's a largely symbolic move that's available to him under this international health agreement. And again, it is symbolic, but it's one that can also be incredibly powerful in terms of convening international attention and resources and just mobilization.

FADEL: So does this mean the...

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TEDROS: COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Almost 7 million deaths have been reported to WHO. But we know the toll is several times higher, at least 20 million.

AIZENMAN: Yeah, that's Tedros speaking about just how much has happened since then.

FADEL: So why now? Why declare it over now?

AIZENMAN: Well, you know, they pointed to several reasons, Tedros and also the members of the committee that advised him. And they said that on the one hand, you know, the pandemic is not over. And frankly, it's not WHO that declares whether a pandemic begins and when a pandemic ends. But this tool for, you know, convening global attention is really meant to be during an emergency. And now the pandemic has shifted into a different phase, a very serious phase, and one that's going to require continued attention. But it's no longer in that emergency state, the way they see it.

FADEL: And when you say a different phase, what does that mean? What's next?

AIZENMAN: Well, you know, they're still calling for ongoing surveillance, ongoing vaccinations. And they're particularly concerned about making sure that the world is aware of any new variants that might emerge because they also warned that if that happens, you know, and it's a variant that does cause a new kind of emergency, you know, they might go back and declare, you know, that it is an emergency again.

FADEL: NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Thank you so much for your reporting.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.