The World Health Organization decided on Monday against declaring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, as deaths have started rising again since China dismantled its strict "zero-COVID" policy in December.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus determined that the ongoing pandemic "continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern," in line with the recommendations of a panel of health experts, the organization said in a statement.
The panel members agreed that "COVID-19 remains a dangerous infectious disease with the capacity to cause substantial damage to health and health systems," the WHO said.
Tedros acknowledged the experts' view that "the COVID-19 pandemic is probably at a transition point," it said.
Among the concerns expressed by the experts are a still high number of deaths, an insufficient level of vaccination in low- and middle-income countries and in the highest-risk groups worldwide, and the uncertainty associated with emerging variants.
"The death curve should continually be going down, and it's not," Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, said in a recent interview with Kyodo News. "In fact, right now, it's rising" even without taking into account data coming from China.
"That's what concern us right now," she added.
The panel, gathering every three months to advise the WHO head, held on Friday its 14th meeting since the emergency was declared three years ago.
The final decision on lifting the current state of emergency lies with the WHO head, based on the panel's advice.
At the opening of the meeting, Tedros told the panel that weekly reported deaths have begun increasing globally again since the beginning of December with almost 40,000 deaths last week, with half of those deaths reported from China.
The WHO has repeatedly called on China to share more detailed data, including deaths and hospitalizations as well as genetic sequences.
"The data coming from China is increasing, but we still need more," Van Kerkhove said.
The U.N. health body also said Beijing's definition of death, which only counts COVID-19 deaths if there is a record of respiratory failure, is too narrow.
Tedros said in a recent press conference the virus "has and will continue to surprise us and it will continue to kill" if vaccines and antivirals are not shared with people who need them and misinformation is not tackled.
Listing areas of concern, he said too few people are adequately vaccinated around the world including with booster shots, health systems are under stain and surveillance and genetic sequencing have "dramatically" declined.
In September, before the situation worsened, Tedros said the world "has never been in a better position to end the COVID-19 pandemic." In December, he told reporters in Geneva he was "hopeful" that "at some point" in 2023 COVID-19 would not be a global health emergency anymore.
The emergency designation is the WHO's highest level of alert associated with a disease outbreak, but each country is responsible for taking appropriate steps to manage a health crisis.
Japan last week decided to downgrade the legal status of the novel coronavirus in May to the same category as seasonal influenza and other common infectious diseases, a major shift that will help normalize social and economic activities.
Van Kerkhove said it is never too early to prepare, adding that as it is clear the virus will not disappear, health systems must integrate COVID-19 into regular respiratory disease management.
Such a transition period will last for years, she said.