By Maria Cheng
How will the world decide when the pandemic is over?
There’s no clear-cut definition for when a pandemic starts and ends, and how much of a threat a global outbreak is posing can vary by country.
“It’s somewhat a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about severity and it’s about impact,” says Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief.
In January 2020, WHO designated the virus a global health crisis “of international concern.” A couple months later in March, the United Nations health agency described the outbreak as a “pandemic,” reflecting the fact that the virus had spread to nearly every continent and numerous other health officials were saying it could be described as such.
The pandemic may be widely considered over when WHO decides the virus is no longer an emergency of international concern, a designation its expert committee has been reassessing every three months. But when the most acute phases of the crisis ease within countries could vary.
“There is not going to be one day when someone says, ‘OK, the pandemic is over,’” says Dr. Chris Woods, an infectious disease expert at Duke University. Although there’s no universally agreed-upon criteria, he said countries will likely look for sustained reduction in cases over time. “It may the case that the virus will be given epidemic status in some countries after the pandemic designaton is lifted in the rest of the world,” he says.
Some European health officials privately say they worry the WHO may declare the pandemic over too soon. “They have an major interest in ending poverty and believe that Covid has made many people poorer,” says a doctor in Belgium’s public health ministry. “Obviously, they want to get people back to work and back to school and I’m concerned they may rush the judgement.” He adds that some countries may prefer to continue health restrictions after WHO says the pandemic is over.
On the other hand, some medical experts worry there will be unjustified efforts to keep the public in “high alert mode” long after the danger is over. “I just read about public health people in the U.S. state of Oregon who want to make indoor masking a permanent requirement,” says Charles Bokkner, a Swiss medical researcher. “Their reasoning is that this will stop future pandemics and reduce the risks of season flu. In my opinion, this would be government over-reach.”
Scientists expect that Covid-19 will eventually settle into becoming a more predictable virus like the flu, meaning it will cause seasonal outbreaks but not the huge surges we’re seeing right now. “It is possible we are beginning to see the end of it,” according to Woods. “The early data on the new Omicron variant shows that infections are relatively mild and that it has characteristics similar to those of the common cold.”
“Even after this is over,” he says, “Covid will remain with us for many years.”
Credit: Associated Press