The World Health Organization declared on Friday that the COVID-19 pandemic no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, citing a decline of deaths and cases involving serious symptoms.

While lifting the emergency for the first time in more than three years, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked people to remain cautious about the novel coronavirus, stressing it still represents a global health threat.

Screenshot shows Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization, speaking at a press conference in Geneva on May 5, 2023. (Kyodo)

A key advisory panel had recommended to him on Thursday that the U.N. body announce an end to the public health emergency of international concern, Tedros told a press conference.

"I have accepted that advice," he said. "It is therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency."

At the same time, he warned governments not to get complacent, urging every affected country not to "dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that COVID-19 is nothing to worry about."

"This virus is here to stay. It is still killing, and it's still changing," Tedros said, adding that new variants could emerge and cause new surges in cases and deaths.

He noted that the novel coronavirus has caused almost 7 million recorded deaths worldwide over the three years of the pandemic, with the real toll likely to be far higher as "at least 20 million" people are thought to have died from the disease.

The WHO declared the emergency on Jan. 30, 2020.

Tedros recently said that the number of deaths reported over the past 10 weeks had fallen to the lowest level since March 2020.

According to data provided by the WHO to the advisory panel, there have been declines in deaths, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions related to COVID-19.

Didier Houssin, chair of the advisory panel, said that while the emergency status has been a tool to "generate mobilization and reaction," it should not be overused.

Houssin said efforts should now be put into better managing COVID-19-related risks, as well as integrating them into the broader framework of pandemic preparedness and response.

The panel of health experts, which gathers every three months to advise the WHO head, held on Thursday its 15th meeting since the emergency was declared.

As advised by the panel, Tedros further decided to establish a review committee to develop long-term and nonbinding recommendations for countries on how to manage COVID-19 on an ongoing basis.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, said the transition will take some time "because there isn't this automatic switch between everything on and everything off."

The WHO released a two-year strategic preparedness and response plan earlier this week to guide countries in their efforts to get out of the pandemic, she said.

Among the remaining challenges are uncertainty about the evolution of the novel coronavirus, difficulties in monitoring and detecting new variants due to a decline in surveillance and genetic sequencing, and inequalities in access to vaccines, WHO health experts told Friday's press conference.

In December, before the situation worsened due to an explosion of cases in China, Tedros 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.