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COVID-19 No Longer a Public Health Emergency: What's Next?

June 5, 2023

After three years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that COVID-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency. With lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing and mask mandates as a slowly fading memory, News@AUC interviewed Hassan Azzazy, distinguished University professor in the Department of Chemistry and head of AUC's Scientific Advisory Committee, and Bassem Gamil, director of medical services at AUC, on what this means for the future.

What does the statement from the WHO mean?

Azzazy: It means that COVID-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency of international concern." This decision was based on the reported sustained decrease in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and deaths, in addition to the observed high population immunity against SARS-CoV-2. 

Gamil: ]COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a global emergency. So WHO is transitioning from an emergency response to longer-term sustained COVID disease management. 

Does this mean the pandemic is over?

Azzazy: COVID-19 still represents a global health threat. Over the past three years, COVID-19 has killed or sickened over 750 million people across the globe, with actual figures higher than reported ones. Although the number of COVID-19 deaths has dramatically decreased by 95% since last January, it still claimed 20 lives per hour last month. 

So what has changed?

Gamil: WHO is changing its approach. The initial strategy was to treat the pandemic as an emergency. The new strategy is focused on long-term COVID-19 disease management. WHO is also emphasizing the need to prepare for future pandemics.

Azzazy: The declaration gives countries a green light to go back to life as we knew it before COVID-19. Countries are no longer required to implement emergency health measures and mobilize resources, including free testing, vaccines or medications.

What about precautionary measures inside and outside AUC?

Azzazy: AUC has removed vaccination requirements sand reduced precautionary measures as per the updated national and international guidelines. 

Gamil: Most countries and global health institutes have reduced precautionary measures, including travel requirements and vaccination proof while keeping prophylactic health measures in place. Although AUC has removed the vaccination requirement from the visitors policy and lightened precautionary measuresOffice of Medical Services still deals seriously with the flu and possible COVID-19 cases to provide optimum care without interrupting the flow of work or classes.

What challenges may lay ahead?

Azzazy: Many countries have reduced their testing and tracing efforts. This could jeopardize monitoring of known variants as well as detection of new ones. Most recently, a new subvariant of Omicron “Arcturus” is reported to cause a surge of infections in India and was also detected in several other countries. On the other hand, there is a need to address the “long COVID” condition in which patients may experience severe symptoms in multiple organ systems which can last for months or years and is reported in 10% of SARS-CoV-2 infections.

Is another pandemic possible?

Gamil: WHO has stated that the world must prepare in the future for outbreaks deadlier than COVID-19, and I think that is a real possibility. If that happens, putting the public back under precautionary measures after the long years of COVID might be the bigger challenge.

What can we do in the meantime?

Azzazy: Individuals should continue to practice good personal hygiene, such as frequently washing hands, using disinfectants, which are key to minimising chances of contracting any infection. People who experience a cold or COVID-like symptoms should promptly seek medical advice and report symptoms to AUC clinic.  

Gamil: My advice to AUC community members when getting a cold or feeling sick with COVID-like symptoms is to report their symptoms on the COVID-19 reporting system and seek medical consultation so that the treating physician can guide them to the treatment plan. Whether they need to get tested or not is left to clinical judgment and advice.