The global public emergency caused by Covid-19 may be officially over but the pandemic will still be with us for many years. Nor is it clear that governments have learned sufficiently from the outbreak to be ready to fight off new emerging microbes that could trigger worse calamities.
These are the stark conclusions of scientists reacting to last week’s news that the World Health Organization (WHO) no longer considers Covid-19 – which has killed more than 7 million people over the past three years – to be a public health emergency of international concern.
Most researchers welcomed the decision because it reflects the fact that the acute phase of the Covid-19 outbreak is now over. At its peak, in January 2021, the global death rate reached more than 100,000 people a week. Last week it had dropped to about 3,500.
However, health officials and scientists also pointed out that immunity to the disease remains short-lived, while there has been considerable slackening in restrictions previously imposed to prevent people from infecting each other. Future waves of infections are therefore inevitable, they warned.
“One does not simply flick a switch and declare a pandemic as being over, especially one so damaging and of such scale as this one,” said Professor Stephen Griffin of Leeds University.
This view was backed by Professor Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. “Whether Covid-19 is labelled a global pandemic or not, many countries around the world are experiencing significant waves of infection, with thousands dying every week,” she said. “This will continue for the foreseeable future while there is no global effort to reduce Covid-19, and hence no global effort to reduce the likelihood of damaging new variants.”
Professor Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University was even more critical. “This bittersweet announcement seems more a white flag than a cause for celebration,” he said. “While there has been profound progress, this decision reflects the political reality of Covid more clearly than the medical situation.”
Many scientists told the Observer that the legacy of the pandemic – although it is past its peak – will be profound and long-lasting. Its cause, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is still killing one person every three minutes, while many survivors are suffering the debilitating impact of long Covid, which can leave them incapacitated for months. The virus also poses a continued threat to elderly people and those with health conditions, adding a new annual danger to seasonal ailments such as influenza and other respiratory diseases that strike in winter.
“We now have a new human coronavirus that will continue to blight human populations into the future,” said Professor Andrew Lee of Sheffield University.
In short, the pandemic’s impact will be felt for a long time, both in terms of new cases and those already suffering from long Covid.
“We will need to invest in our healthcare systems to cope with all the extra people needing care every year,” said Professor Mark Jit of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Above all, the world will need to work together so that we will be better prepared for such emergencies in the future – whether they are caused by a deadly new variant of the Covid virus, or by a completely new microbe that we have never seen before.”
This latter point is a particular concern for many scientists. As habitat destruction continues across the planet and air travel opens up more and more parts of the globe, new emerging viruses are likely to appear – and in some cases they may spread to humans.
Prior to Covid-19, the Ebola virus, as well as the coronaviruses that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), triggered worrying epidemics, though none of them had the global impact of Covid. That may not be the case for the next emerging virus, however. Unfortunately, few governments appear to be gearing up their efforts to pinpoint outbreaks of new diseases before they can spread to major human populations.
“There is a series of ongoing inquiries looking at how we could and should have responded better to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University. “I hope these will set out how we could have reduced not only the harm caused by the virus but also the self-inflicted harm caused by a strategy of shutting down much of society in an effort to reduce transmission rates. Given the ever-present threat of another pandemic, lessons need to be learned.”
This argument was supported by psychologist Simon Williams of Swansea University. “It’s time to consider what we’ve learned during the pandemic, and what happens next,” he said. “I think this emergency has taught us how adaptable and responsive people can be – how much people were willing to sacrifice to keep others safe – but how underprepared many governments and institutions were.
“The last three years have taught us how resilient we can be as individuals, but how we need to build better institutional resilience. That is, we need to make sure we are better prepared for future health emergencies.”