The World Health Organization says the covid-19 pandemic could escalate this year to the point where it poses a flu-like threat.

The UN health agency previously expressed confidence that it will be able to declare an end to the emergency sometime in 2023, saying it was increasingly hopeful that the pandemic phase of the virus is coming to an end.

Last weekend marked three years since the WHO first described the situation as a “pandemic”, although the organisation’s head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, insists countries should have acted weeks in advance.

“I think we’re getting to the point where we can look at Covid-19 the same way we look at seasonal flu,” WHO emergency chief Michael Ryan told a news conference.

“A threat to health, a virus that will continue to kill. But a virus that doesn’t disrupt our society or disrupt our hospital systems, and I think it will, as Tedros said, this year.”

The WHO chief said the world was in a much better position now than it has been at any time during the pandemic.

The WHO declared a PHEIC, the highest level of alert it can sound, on January 30, 2020, when fewer than 100 cases and no deaths had been reported outside of China.

But it was only when Tedros described the worsening situation as a pandemic on March 11 that year that many countries seemed to wake up to the danger.

“We declared a global health emergency to spur countries to take decisive action, but not all countries did,” he said on Friday.

“Three years later, there are almost seven million reported deaths from covid-19, although we know the actual death toll is much higher.”

He was pleased that the weekly number of reported deaths in the past four weeks has for the first time been lower than when he first described COVID-19 as a pandemic.

But he said the more than 5,000 deaths reported per week were 5,000 too many for a preventable and treatable disease.