By Teodoro B. Padilla
A FEW days ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency of international concern. This declaration prompted a series of marked changes in policies related to the illness that claimed the lives of close to 7 million people globally.
The International Health Regulations, a binding international agreement among 196 countries, defined the emergency as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.”
This refers to a situation that is serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected. It also means having implications for public health beyond the affected country’s national border. The emergency may require immediate international action.
Since the WHO declaration of the emergency in January 2020, several internationally coordinated actions were undertaken. This included curtailing free movement of people and goods in a determined bid to delay the spread of highly virulent strains of COVID-19.
On May 5, the coronavirus status was downgraded as a result of the pandemic being on a downward trend in the past 12 months. Even death rates have continued to spiral down. Hospitals and health professionals have almost gone back to normal, allowing them to serve non-COVID patients. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this downward trend “has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19.”
Global health experts attributed this breakthrough to the “highly effective vaccines developed in record time to fight the disease.” Due to biopharmaceutical development, there have also been COVID diagnostics that could be availed of in facilities and pharmacies for testing at home. A wide array of treatment options has likewise been made available to prevent and treat mild, moderate and critical infections.
While there is optimism about recent developments, there is a need to proceed with caution. The declaration of the end of the emergency is not the end of the pandemic. Health experts stressed that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic could only be seen with the emergence of a new one.
In fact, the WHO said the virus is here to stay. Tedros said COVID-19 is “still killing, and it is still changing.” Moreover, there are still risks of developing new variants that can cause surges.
In the Philippines for example, the OCTA Research Group said the COVID-19 positivity rate had increased to 20.9% as of Monday. It even projected 1,500 to 1,700 new cases on a single day this week.
While many have developed immunity where COVID-19 could not do major damage to one’s health, there are also many who continue to fight for their lives in intensive care units or are experiencing the so-called long COVID.
Long COVID affects some people who have been sick with COVID-19, and they may experience long-term effects from their infection, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They continue to experience prolonged signs and symptoms after an initial COVID infection. These symptoms include difficulty in breathing, fatigue, brain fog and even fever for some.
Tedros compared the impact of COVID to “scars” that should serve as a permanent reminder of the potential for new viruses to emerge, with devastating consequences. These consequences include deaths, overwhelmed health systems and major economic losses.
Looking back at what worked and what did not work can help the country navigate its way out of the pandemic. The pandemic response has been characterized by urgency, partnership and innovation.
Urgency and innovation, in particular, paved the way for the development and scaling up of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics at record speed and scale. Partnership, on the other hand, allowed for the rollout of vaccines, tests and treatments. These must continue to respond to the rapidly changing virus, and prepare for any future pandemics and health threats.
Teodoro B. Padilla is the executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, which represents the biopharmaceutical medicine and vaccine industry in the country. Its members are in the forefront of research and development efforts for COVID-19 and other diseases that affect Filipinos.