SHENZHEN: While the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an end to the global emergency status for COVID-19, the virus remains harmful and China will continue to monitor it while increasing vaccinations among high-risk groups, a top Chinese health official said.
The WHO ended its highest level of alert for COVID-19 on Friday, more than three years after its original declaration, saying countries should now manage the virus along with other infectious diseases.
The ending of the alert status does not mean COVID-19 will disappear, but its impact can now be effectively controlled, Liang Wannian, head of China's COVID-19 response expert panel under the National Health Commission, said in an interview with state media CCTV published on Saturday (May 6).
China will continue to monitor mutations of the virus, strengthen vaccinations among high-risk and key groups, and look to improve COVID-19 treatment capabilities, Liang said.
China held on to its zero tolerance for COVID-19 long after most countries started to live with the virus, and only began to abandon its restrictive policies in late 2022.
In February China's top leaders declared a "decisive victory" against COVID-19 and claimed the world's lowest fatality rate, though experts have questioned Beijing's data.
The WHO announcement came after its independent emergency committee on the COVID-19 crisis agreed it no longer merited the organisation's highest alert level and "advised that it is time to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic".
But the danger was not over, according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who estimated that COVID-19 had killed "at least 20 million" people - about three times the nearly seven million deaths officially recorded.
"This virus is here to stay. It is still killing, and it's still changing," he said.
"The worst thing any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard, to dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that COVID-19 is nothing to worry about."
The UN health agency first declared the so-called public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) over the crisis on Jan 30, 2020.
That was weeks after the mysterious new viral disease was first detected in China and when fewer than 100 cases and no deaths had been reported outside that country.
But it was only after Tedros described the worsening COVID-19 situation as a pandemic on Mar 11, 2020, that many countries woke up to the danger.
By then, the SARS CoV-2 virus which causes the disease had already begun its deadly rampage around the globe.
"One of the greatest tragedies of COVID-19 is that it didn't have to be this way," Tedros said, decrying that "a lack of coordination, a lack of equity and a lack of solidarity" meant "lives were lost that should not have been".
"We must promise ourselves and our children and grandchildren that we will never make those mistakes again."
Even though COVID-19 deaths globally have plunged 95 per cent since January, the disease remains a major killer.
Last week alone "COVID-19 claimed a life every three minutes", Tedros said, "and that's just the deaths we know about".
"The emergency phase is over, but COVID is not," agreed Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19.
Tedros has warned of the ongoing impact of long COVID, which provokes numerous and often severe and debilitating symptoms that can drag on for years.
This condition has been estimated to impact one in 10 people who contract COVID-19, suggesting that hundreds of millions could need longer-term care, he cautioned.