When will the COVID-19 pandemic end? Here's who decides

Experts say higher vaccination rates and easing of coronavirus restrictions are just not enough to call the pandemic over in Australia or anywhere else.

Scientists believe COVID will transition from pandemic to endemic over time.

Scientists believe COVID will transition from pandemic to endemic over time. (file) Source: Getty/Tempura

It's a call the World Health Organization's director-general takes every three months on the recommendations of the Emergency Committee.

The Emergency Committee, which comprises international experts, has met 12 times since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), or pandemic, in January 2020.

In the last meeting on 8 July 2022, the Committee unanimously agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the global population, poses an ongoing risk of international spread, and requires a coordinated international response.

The WHO's decision is binding on more than 190 signatory countries, including Australia.

Members of the public wait to be tested at a pop up COVID clinic in Melbourne's North, Wednesday, December 22, 2021. Victoria is considering tightening indoor mask mandates, as testing sites continue to be inundated. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett) NO ARCHIVING
Australia is preparing for a fresh wave from Omicron's two new sub-lineages, BA.5 and BA.4. Source: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Professor Stephen Li, Director of the Institute of Clinical Pathology and Medical Research in NSW, said parameters such as people's behaviour, economic impact, mortality and morbidity would decide the fate of the current pandemic.

Professor Li believes the phrase "no longer a pandemic" is wishful thinking at this stage.

We may not hear this in the foreseeable future unless the virus mutates to become milder. And we have much better, more specific vaccines and medications available
Reports from the WHO and around the globe show the virus has mutated several times but has not lost its virulence. It continues to cause severe diseases and deaths.

Researchers from Monash University said the Delta or the third wave between June and November 2021 caused more deaths, hospitalisations and ICU admissions than the previous two waves in Australia.

Australia is already preparing for a fresh wave from Omicron's two new sub-lineages, BA.5 and BA.4. Authorities believe there could be a rise in new cases, reinfections, hospitalisations and deaths.

These sub-lineages can evade immunity from previous COVID-19 infections and vaccinations. They are already driving hospitalisations and ICU admissions in some countries.

WHO's COVID-19 Technical Lead, Dr Maria Van Kerkove, said the pandemic is far from over.

"We are playing fire with this virus… I understand that the world wants to be done with the COVID-19 pandemic, but such intense circulation will lead to more variants," Dr Van Kerove said.

"Even with current variants, deaths are far too high and totally unacceptable when we have tools to prevent them," Dr Van Kerove said.

Health authorities and drug manufacturers globally have progressed since the first COVID-19 case was detected in Wuhan, China on 31 December 2019.

Oral therapeutics such as paxlovid and molnupiravir have shown promising results in preventing severe diseases and deaths in people with COVID-19.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have begun a human trial for a vaccine that targets Omicron and future variants. Drug majors such as Pfizer and Moderna are also developing similar vaccines.

Annual COVID-19 vaccinations are likely to be introduced for high-risk individuals. "There are more than a dozen groups researching the development of nasal spray vaccines," Professor Li said.

Scientists believe COVID-19 will transition from pandemic to endemic over time.

Mike Ryan, the Executive Director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, warns that endemic doesn't mean the problem is over.

"Pandemic to endemic is just changing the labels," he previously said.

"Endemic diseases require strong control programs to reduce infections, suffering and deaths. HIV, malaria and tuberculosis are endemic diseases, kill millions of people on earth every year."

Health authorities are already worried about the impacts of long-COVID also known as long-haul COVID and post COVID-19.

Long-COVID is a condition that usually occurs three months after the onset of infection with symptoms in individuals with probable or confirmed SARS CoV-2 infection.

Professor Danforn Lim from the NICM Health Research Institute said issues such as isolation, economic disadvantage and lack of access further compound the complexities of long-term COVID-19 care.

He said the pandemic is never over for vulnerable people.

They can get sick long after the general population has passed the herd immunity line.

If you have any of the following symptoms, call emergency services on 000 immediately and tell the phone operator you’ve previously been diagnosed with COVID-19.

  • severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • severe chest pain or pressure
  • a new or returning fever
  • worsening ability to concentrate and increased confusion
  • difficulty waking up
If you experience other symptoms after recovering from COVID-19, get in touch with your GP or other health provider (source: Healthdirect).

SBS is committed to providing all COVID-19 updates to Australia’s multicultural and multilingual communities. Stay safe and stay informed by visiting regularly the .

4 min read
Published 29 June 2022 at 3:47pm
By Melissa Compagnoni, Sahil Makkar