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China’s covid cases loom over upcoming WHO meeting on state of the pandemic

Is the covid pandemic over? The World Health Organization (WHO) is set to consider that question at a meeting this week, its 14th since the UN agency first identified the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020.

On Friday (Jan. 27), the WHO’s International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee will discuss whether the covid outbreak still meets the definition of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the agency’s highest risk level. While the call is ultimately one for WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to make, he has so far consistently followed the committee’s advice throughout the pandemic.

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“While I will not preempt the advice of the emergency committee, I remain very concerned by the situation in many countries and the rising number of deaths,” Tedros said at a press conference ahead of the meeting, the first to take place since China lifted its zero-covid policy. The WHO chief specifically referred to the recent surge in covid cases in China, where at least 170,000 deaths have been reported in the last eight weeks.

The committee will consider the specific parameters of a PHEIC, namely whether the outbreak is still “serious, sudden, unusual, or unexpected.” While the pandemic clearly remains serious, the past three years have seen significant improvement in protecting people against the virus, through rapid antigen tests, treatments like the Paxlovid antiviral pill, and vaccines. More than two thirds of the world population have so far received at least one dose of a covid vaccine. The committee is expected to announce its decision on Jan. 30.

A timeline of the WHO’s coronavirus response

Dec. 31, 2019: WHO’s China office hears about cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan, a city in the central Hubei province.

Jan. 4, 2020: The WHO tweets about a cluster of “pneumonia” cases reported in Hubei province, saying investigations are underway to identify the cause of the illness.

Jan. 22, 2020: The WHO convenes a first emergency committee meeting to discuss the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, identified by Chinese researchers. The two-day summit concludes it’s not yet time to declare the outbreak a PHEIC, but the committee should reconvene in a matter of days to monitor the situation.

Jan. 30, 2020: The WHO declares the novel coronavirus outbreak a PHEIC.

March 7, 2020: The number of covid-19 cases exceeds 100,000 worldwide.

March 11, 2020: The WHO declares the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

Apr. 4, 2020: The number of covid-19 cases reaches 1 million worldwide, and reported deaths reach 50,000.

Dec. 31, 2020: As the UK and South Africa report new coronavirus variants, the WHO approves the first covid vaccine for emergency use, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

May 31, 2021: The WHO adopts the Greek alphabet to refer to coronavirus variants of concern.

Sept. 14, 2022: WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the end of the pandemic “is in sight.”

Oct. 13, 2022: The WHO’s emergency committee meeting, the 13th since the agency first identified the novel coronavirus, decides to retain the PHEIC classification.

The novel coronavirus outbreak, by the digits

665 million: Covid cases recorded worldwide since January 2020

6.8 million: Covid deaths recorded worldwide since January 2020

11: Emergency Use Listings issued for covid vaccines

13 billion: Vaccine doses administered worldwide as of Jan. 24, 2023

More than 5 billion: People who have received a complete course of covid vaccination as of Jan. 15, 2023 (about 66% of the world population)

19.8 million: Estimated lives saved thanks to the covid vaccines, according to a July 2022 WHO report

70%: Share of the global population that should have been vaccinated by mid-2022 as per the WHO target. Having missed the target, the WHO plans to release a new covid vaccination strategy in 2023.

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