Cover-19: Now World can start dreaming of pandemic’s end: UN health chief

UN health chief said that WHO’s ACT-Accelerator program to quickly develop and distribute vaccines fairly “is in peril of becoming no quite a noble gesture” without major new funding.

The UN health chief declared Friday that positive results from coronavirus vaccine trials mean the planet “can begin to dream about the top of the pandemic,” but he said rich and powerful nations must not trample the poor and marginalized “in the stampede for vaccines.”

In an address to the U.N. General Assembly’s first high-level session on the pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that while the virus are often stopped, “the path ahead remains treacherous.”

The pandemic has shown humanity at “its best and worst,” he said, pointing to “inspiring acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, breathtaking feats of science and innovation, and heartwarming demonstrations of solidarity, but also disturbing signs of self-interest, blame-shifting and divisions.”

Referring to the present upsurge in infections and deaths, Tedros said without naming any countries that “where science is drowned out by conspiracy theories, where solidarity is undermined by division, where sacrifice is substituted with self interest, the virus thrives, the virus spreads.”

He warned during a virtual address to the high-level meeting that a vaccine “will not address the vulnerabilities that lie at its root” — poverty, hunger, inequality and global climate change, which he said must be tackled once the pandemic ends.

“We cannot and that we must not return to an equivalent exploitative patterns of production and consumption, an equivalent disregard for the earth that sustains all life, an equivalent cycle of panic and meddling and therefore the same divisive politics that fueled this pandemic,” he said.

On vaccines, Tedros said, “the light at the top of the tunnel is growing steadily brighter,” but vaccines “must be shared equally as global public goods, not as private commodities that widen inequalities and become yet one more reason some people are left behind.”

He said WHO’s ACT-Accelerator program to quickly develop and distribute vaccines fairly “is in peril of becoming no quite a noble gesture” without major new funding.

He said $4.3 billion is required immediately to get the groundwork for mass procurement and delivery of vaccines and an extra $23.9 billion is required for 2021. That total, Tedros said, is a smaller amount than one-half of 1 percent of the $11 trillion in stimulus packages announced thus far by the Group of 20, the world’s richest countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an identical appeal for funding for the ACT-Accelerator at Thursday’s opening of the two-day General Assembly session. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday that Guterres is frustrated and would have liked see “a much much higher rate of investment by those countries who can.”

Tedros said, many countries were unprepared for the pandemic and assumed their health systems would protect their people despite years of warnings. Many countries that have done best handling the crisis had experience responding to the outbreaks of SARS, MERS, HINI and other infectious diseases, he said.

WHO has been sharply criticized for not taking a stronger and more vocal role in handling the pandemic. Tedros told the meeting “clearly, the worldwide system for preparedness needs attention.”

He said a WHO commission established in September is reviewing international health regulations. WHO is additionally working with several countries on developing a pilot program during which countries comply with regular and transparent reviews of their health preparedness, he said.

The pandemic also showed the necessity for a worldwide system to share samples of viruses and other pathogens that cause disease to facilitate development of “medical counter-measures as global public goods” he said, welcoming Switzerland’s offer to use a high-security laboratory to manage a replacement biobank.

Tedros also backed European Union chief Charles Michel’s proposal for a world treaty under which WHO would monitor the risks of emerging infectious diseases in animals for transmission to humans, ensure alerts of health risks, improve access to health care, and address financing needs. He said this is able to provide “the political underpinning” for strengthening the worldwide health sector.

The world spends $7.5 trillion on health per annum, almost 10% of worldwide GDP, Tedros said, but most of that cash is spent in rich countries on treating disease instead of on “promoting and protecting health.”