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After 2 years, pandemic 'far from over'

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO’s director-general says it is nowhere near the end as nations seek to lift restrictions.

People wearing masks as they walk through Central Park Simion Bărnuțiu in Romania's Cluj-Napoca
People wearing masks as they walk through Central Park Simion Bărnuțiu in the northwestern Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca in late December 2020 (AN/Nuță Lucian)

GENEVA (AN) — Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization’s director-general says it is nowhere near the end as nations seek to move past the lockdowns, testing and other restrictions they've imposed to curb the spread of the virus.

"This Friday marks two years since we said that the global spread of COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic. As a reminder, we made that assessment six weeks after we declared COVID-19 a global health emergency," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press briefing.

"Two years later, more than 6 million people have died," said Tedros, a politician and public health expert who formerly headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries. "Although reported cases and deaths are declining globally, and several countries have lifted restrictions, the pandemic is far from over – and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere."

Pandemics are relatively rare, but public health experts worry they might become more frequent. "It is generally accepted there will be another pandemic," the independent policy institute Chatham House said last month, "and that, through many of the same activities that fuel climate change, humans are giving pandemics more opportunities to occur."

In the 20th century, three influenza pandemics occurred. The most severe was the "Spanish flu," also caused by H1N1 virus. It led to an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide from 1918 to 1919.

An "Asian flu" pandemic of H2N2 virus from 1957 to 1958 and a "Hong Kong flu" from H3N2 virus in 1968 caused an estimated 4 million deaths each.

The H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, was the first pandemic of the 21st century, infecting 1-in-5 people worldwide a decade ago. It also was the first pandemic for which many of WHO's 194 member nations developed comprehensive public health measures to reduce illness and fatalities.

A vaccine was developed, produced and used in multiple countries during the first year of that pandemic. Though most cases of pandemic H1N1 were mild, it caused an estimated death toll of between 151,700 to 575,400 worldwide. It was declared a pandemic in June 2009, and generally thought to be ended by August 2010.

Children and young adults were disproportionately affected compared to seasonal influenza, which causes severe disease mainly in the elderly, people with chronic conditions and pregnant women.

Virus 'continues to evolve'

The U.N. health agency declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on January 30, 2020, after it first detected in China and had spread to 7,800 confirmed cases and 170 deaths. Initially, WHO was alerted to a cluster of "pneumonia" cases in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019.

Based on an emergency committee's deliberations, WHO classified the outbreak as an “extraordinary event” that represented a risk to nations other than China — it had already spread to 83 cases in 18 countries — and required a coordinated global response.

Little more than 10 weeks later, there were more than 118,000 confirmed cases and nearly 4,300 deaths among 114 countries. WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, signifying the worldwide spread of a new disease. That marked the first coronavirus pandemic.

Two years later, with more than 452 million cases and 6 million deaths recorded, some of the wealthy countries that have hoarded most of the available vaccines and treatments are acting like the pandemic has all but passed even as COVID-19 evolves.

Tedros said he worries many countries in Asia and the Pacific are facing surges of cases and deaths, and he urged public health officials to not let up on widespread testing.

"The virus continues to evolve, and we continue to face major obstacles in distributing vaccines, tests and treatments everywhere they are needed," he said. "WHO is concerned that several countries are drastically reducing testing. This inhibits our ability to see where the virus is, how it’s spreading, and how it’s evolving."