US President Joe Biden and WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus both recently expressed optimism that the Covid-19 crisis is over. But is the pandemic really a thing of the past?

During an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes on Sunday, US President Joe Biden offered a bold assessment of the coronavirus crisis, assuring the public that the “Covid-19 pandemic is over”.

“We still have a problem with COVID. We are still working on it a lot. But the pandemic is over,” he said. “If you notice, no one is wearing a mask. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think that’s changing.”

Biden’s statement came just days after Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization (WHO), also offered an optimistic assessment of the end of the pandemic: “We are not there yet. . But the end is in sight.” he told reporters during a virtual press conference on September 15.

The number of Covid-related d*aths is steadily declining around the world. The WHO has recorded 11,118 d*aths in the week ending September 5, the lowest weekly tally since mid-March 2020.

The United States went from more than 3,000 d*aths per day at the start of Biden’s term in January 2021 to around 400 in September, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US public health agency).

But this optimism may seem at odds with what is happening in other parts of the world.

“It can be disconcerting to hear about the end of the pandemic in Europe as several countries relaunch a fall vaccination campaign,” said Yves Coppieters, an epidemiologist at the Free University of Brussels.

Europe’s medicines watchdog said on Tuesday that Covid-19 cases and d*ath rates were down, but warned the pandemic “is still ongoing” as it urged countries to roll out programs reminder before winter. “…As autumn approaches, we have to prepare for a new wave of infections in line with the trend shown by the virus over the past two years,” said Marco Cavaleri, Head of Vaccine Strategy of the European Medicines Agency, during an EMA. press conference of September 20, 2022.

In France, the tone is far from triumphant since Public Health France warns of an upsurge in cases since the beginning of September.

China does not seem ready to claim victory in its fight against Covid-19 either. More than 30 cities in China still impose partial or total confinements on more than 60 million inhabitants.

Between the optimism of some and the caution of others, it is difficult to know where things stand. “Even within the scientific community, you would get really different answers. There is no single definition of what the end of the pandemic means,” said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, public health policy specialist at Harvard University, in an interview with National Geographic on August 6, 2021.

The ball is in WHO’s court

Officially, since it was the WHO who “declared the start of the pandemic, it is up to them to decide when the pandemic ends,” said Mircea Sofonea, epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier.

The WHO has a committee of experts which has given its opinion every three months since January 2020 on whether or not to maintain the qualification of a pandemic. These experts were still in favor of designating it as such in their last report, published on July 12. It is unclear whether they will share Biden and Ghebreyesus’ optimism in their next report, due mid-October.

Epidemiologists seem to agree that there will be no definitive end to the Covid-19 crisis as there was with smallpox. In May 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly confidently declared that smallpox had been totally eliminated from all countries of the world.

“We do not have the means to aim for the total eradication of Sars-CoV-2,” Sofonea said.

In the case of Covid-19, the most scientific approach would be to “notice when the main criterion for declaring a pandemic – that there are epidemics on at least three continents – no longer concerns Covid-19”, a said Coppieters.

Each country establishes a threshold for the circulation of the virus. If it is exceeded, the country is supposed to report to the WHO that it is experiencing an epidemic. For example, the “epidemic threshold” in France for Covid-19 is 98 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

But having the most reliable data does not always guarantee unanimity. “WHO has been criticized for declaring the start of the Covid-19 pandemic too late” in March 2020, Sofonea said.

The consequences of the end of the pandemic

For Sofonea, the only way to know if we have reached the end of the pandemic is to “look at the saturation of hospitals”. Thanks to widespread vaccination, more effective treatments and variants like Omicron which seem to lead to fewer hospitalizations, the impact of Covid -19 on national health systems is much less severe than a year ago.

And simply declaring the end of the pandemic will not mean that Covid-19 has been eradicated, especially in regions – often less wealthy – where vaccination is progressing slowly.

That’s why epidemiologists don’t think the end of the pandemic will be announced any time soon.

“There will be no scientific threshold. There’s going to be a consensus based on opinion,” said Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, in an interview with Science magazine on March 4, 2022.

The end of the pandemic and a return to “normal” will have certain consequences. Some pharmaceutical companies, such as the American company Moderna, have promised not to exercise their intellectual property rights over vaccine technology until the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Some emergency programs, like Covax — a global initiative that aims to provide equitable access to vaccines — will also reduce their support once the pandemic is over, according to Science.

Statements by Biden and Ghebreyesus are just “political announcements,” Coppieters said, especially in the case of the WHO. “This contrasts with the often very pessimistic tone of the organization since the start of the pandemic. I would not be surprised if the WHO wanted to say that in the midst of all the other bad news (inflation, war in Ukraine, risk of recession), that the health situation, at least, is improving,” he said.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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