Covid-19 pandemic not over, Dr Mike Ryan warns

Finish line is in sight but we may not cross it due to response shortcomings, says WHO chief

The Covid-19 pandemic is not over and the health service and its staff are ill-prepared to deal with any recurrence of mass infections, World Health Organisation head of emergencies Dr Mike Ryan has warned.

With “considerable uncertainties” about the future course of the pandemic, the world could yet be “taken by surprise” by the emergence of a new variant, he said.

Although US president Joe Biden this week declared the pandemic over, Dr Ryan criticised “huge complacency” around Covid-19 and said health systems were poorly equipped to deal with challenges after more than two years of dealing with the virus.

“We can see a finishing-line but we’re not there yet,” he told a University College Cork webinar on Tuesday.


“There is an end in sight, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to cross the finish line because there are significant gaps in our understanding of the risks, our resilience and the vulnerabilities in our system. We need to consider that before we start believing that this pandemic emergency is really over.”

Billions of people still haven’t been vaccinated, he pointed out, while disease testing regimes in many countries have “collapsed” and antivirals are poorly integrated into patient management.

Dr Ryan described as a “very dangerous assumption” that restrictions could be quickly reimposed this winter if a new variant arrives.

“I don’t think our health services around the world are as strong as they were. Our health workers are tired. Some of them are dealing with long-term psychological impacts from responding to this pandemic.

“I’m not trying to be Cassandra here and say the sky is going to fall in but there’s enough uncertainty around the future of this pandemic right now. That leaves me concerned that we’re relying on the health system, its brave health workers who’ve been through the mill over the past 2½ years.”

Health systems are being run at 120 per cent occupancy, “right at the edge of their ability to do normal business. And then we wonder why they fail when we stretch them”.

This winter will see emergency rooms again filled with patients on trolleys, he predicted.

“It’s been like that for a decade or more. We haven’t done anything systematically to address that. If that is the level of resilience we have in our system, then how are we going to respond in the next pandemic?”

The WHO never called for lockdowns during the pandemic, he pointed out.

“In too many countries, there was an all-or-nothing approach, they swung from doing too little to doing too much.”

According to the Department of Health, there were 284 patients with Covid-19 in hospital on Tuesday, including 12 in ICU, unchanged from the previous day.

Last September 6th, just three of Covid-19 cases in ICU had the virus as a primary reason for admission, the latest weekly update from the Department says.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times