Moving on with COVID: Discussion needed on PH policy as WHO lifts international emergency status

THE WORLD HEALTH Organization (WHO) announced on May 5 that COVID-19 would no longer be classified as a global public health emergency (PHEIC). But it also provided abundant reminders about how to protect oneself and avoid infections, clearly warning of existing threats to health.  

News accounts cited WHO’s explanation for this decision: the downward trend in infection, hospitalization and deaths for over a year. And yet, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized: “This virus is here to stay. It is still killing, and it’s still changing. The risk remains of new variants emerging that cause new surges in cases and deaths.”

Consistent with the tone of caution, Department of Health (DOH) Officer-in-Charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a May 9 news briefing that Filipinos “cannot afford to be complacent,” noting that President Marcos still has not lifted the Philippines’ state of public health emergency. She added that the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has already been convened to discuss the implications of the WHO declaration on the country’s COVID-19 protocols. The Philippine Star noted that she refused to share with the press what was discussed during the meeting. 

An explainer helped to understand the difference between PHEIC and  state of pandemic. Simply put, declaring a disease as a PHEIC requires an international coordinated response, with the goal of minimizing its chances of becoming a pandemic. In COVID’s case, it was declared as a PHEIC in 2020 six weeks before it was characterized as a pandemic.

The same report noted that the WHO had recognized in January this year that COVID-19 was in a “transition period,” but refused to lift the PHEIC status at the time. recalled that WHO had made seven temporary recommendations to all nations for a “long-term public health action.” These include the improvement of reporting surveillance data; community engagement for risk communication; continuation of vaccination to cover 100 percent of high-priority groups; and the preparation for future events to “avoid a panic-neglect cycle.”

Some media focused their reports on critical issues implied by these announcements: 

24 Oras noted that vaccine donations might be halted. Another GMA-7 report followed up on the situation in a Manila vaccination center to report that vaccines remain free of charge. Reporter Darlene Cay noted that the despite the lifting of COVID’s PHEIC status, citizens should be encouraged to avail of all kinds of protection, especially as vaccines still come at no cost. Vergeire herself has already asked vaccine manufacturers to apply for a certificate of product registration (CPR) with the Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Once the Philippines decides to lift its own state of emergency, the FDA loses its authority to classify vaccines for emergency use. Instead, vaccines will be offered in the commercial market, which means manufacturers will need to apply for the CPR. Vergeire added that even donated doses need to have the same certificate, but she said the application process would not be a too difficult for manufacturers as countries using bivalent vaccines have already issued the necessary CPRs.

Dr. Janette Garin, former Health Secretary and current Iloilo 1st District Representative, told Karen Davila on ANC’s Headstart that a pandemic exit plan for the country is already “long overdue,” and that these must include, among others, strategies for testing and the creation of health packages that are covered by PhilHealth. In a TV Patrol report, infectious disease specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante said allocation of beds for COVID hospitalization must remain part of a long-term plan.

Surely, it is not enough for newsrooms to pick up cautionary statements from officials. The lifting of PHEIC status for COVID must encourage more questions concerning the capacity of government agencies to provide for health needs related to or apart from COVID-19 and its variants.

Unfortunately, the silence of the DOH and the IATF about their discussion moving forward does not inspire public confidence.

Responding to the PHEIC termination, the British The Guardian noted the consensus among scientists and researchers that it is not “clear that governments have learned sufficiently from the outbreak to be ready to fight off new emerging microbes that could trigger worse calamities.” They agreed that COVID-19 will continue in the future as infections are still rising, and especially now that there is no longer any global effort to reduce the threat and its risks along with the likelihood of new variants.

The article cited Prof. Mark Jit of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said the world needs to prepare for similar emergencies in the future, whether caused by COVID or a completely new pathogen. Prof. Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University and psychologist Simon Williams of Swansea University agreed on the need for the evaluation of the world response to COVID, and to recommend what needs to be done in the future. Williams noted: “I think this emergency has taught us how adaptable and responsive people can be – how much people were willing to sacrifice to keep others safe – but how underprepared many governments and institutions were.”

This scientific viewpoint should guide Philippine media as it continues to report on the state of the virus in the country with or without government guidance or  leadership. Media must chart its own agenda, moving away from its dependence on official statements. There are enough national and international resources who can provide what the scientific community has learned. Media should not be held back from fulfilling its responsibility. It does not need to wait for government to lead the way.