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Africa: WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on Covid-19 – 5 January 2021

Summary:

  • We’re in a race to prevent infections, bring cases down, protect health systems and safe lives while rolling out highly effective and safe vaccines to high-risk populations. This is not easy. But if we act together we can win both races and get ahead of the virus while also limiting the opportunity for the virus to mutate further and threaten the health tools we currently have.
  • Following the Emergency Use Listing last week, the SAGE group met today to discuss policy recommendations for the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
  • Over the past 24 hours, members of the international scientific team on COVID-19 virus origins began traveling from their home countries to China. Today we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China. We are eager to get the mission underway as soon as possible.

As delivered:

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Wherever you are, I wish you a happy new year.

In our first briefing of 2021, I want to take a quick step back and tell you what’s going to be coming up in the next few weeks.

The pandemic is still a major public health crisis.

We’re in a race to save lives, livelihoods and end this pandemic and I’ll share more on that shortly.

However, WHO is not just fighting the pandemic, we’re fighting numerous disease outbreaks across the world, picking up and analysing hundreds of potential signals every week.

And our work goes far beyond emergencies. We work to improve human health in all its aspects from birth to old age.

As shown in the past year, WHO is working day and night to accelerate science, provide solutions to challenges on the ground and build global solidarity.

This is as important for tackling the pandemic as it is for getting essential services back up and running again.

From preventing mothers and their children dying in child birth, to tackling silent emergencies like antimicrobial resistance and mental health, to the prevention, screening and control of HIV, TB, malaria and neglected tropical diseases.

This month for example is cervical cancer awareness month, where WHO is working with partners around the world to accelerate the first global health strategy for the elimination of a cancer.

We have learned a lot in the last year; not least that health is an investment in overall development, critical for thriving economies and a key pillar of national security.

Health cannot be an after-thought when we have an emergency.

We must ensure truly integrated primary health care systems that effectively prevent, screen and treat infectious disease and noncommunicable diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart and lung disease.

The latter collectively lead to the death of more than 40 million people every year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us once again how a new infectious virus puts those with underlying conditions at highest risk of dying.
And those countries that have high numbers of people with health conditions put extra stress on the health system.

And we must work with those focused on the climate crisis, which directly impacts health.

Ultimately we need to invest in preparedness and surveillance to stop the next pandemic and ensure that everyone has access to quality health services.

In the year ahead, scientists and public health experts from inside and outside WHO will continue to work with us to break down the latest science and innovations and putting forward solutions so that we can build back greener and stronger health systems.

My one hope is that there’s less politicking about health in the year ahead.

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We have entered a new phase of the pandemic, where solidarity is needed like never before.

We are in a race to save lives right now and as my colleague Dr. Mike Ryan said back in March last year, it’s important in any crisis to act fast and have no regrets.

Caseloads are so high in several countries that hospitals and intensive care units are filling up to dangerous levels.

For some countries, during the recent holiday period and cold weather, people mixed indoors more, which we know is riskier and will have consequences.

New variants, which appear to be more transmissible, are exacerbating the situation.

We call on all countries to increase testing and sequencing of the virus so that we can monitor and respond effectively to any changes.

Ultimately, countries have to consider their epidemiological situation and take appropriate measures based on the data.

It’s a tough balancing act but ultimately, saving lives, protecting health workers and health systems must come first.

I know it’s tiring, but it’s many times worse for those working or being treated in an overcrowded hospital, or for people who have had their cancer treatment postponed.

So we must act for the most vulnerable that need help right now.

As well as minimising contacts in this critical period, governments must support people who have to isolate or quarantine.

Just as governments have generated stimulus to keep economies going, it’s important to find innovative ways to offer people the chance to isolate safely away from others.

To break chains of transmission, we must identify and find those who are infected, provide the care they need and help them truly isolate safely.

We’re in a race to prevent infections, bring cases down, protect health systems and save lives while rolling out highly effective and safe vaccines to high-risk populations.

This is not easy – these are the hard miles we must tread together.

But if we act together we can win both races and get ahead of the virus while also limiting the opportunity for the virus to mutate further and threaten the health tools we currently have.

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Last week, WHO issued its first Emergency Use Listing for a COVID-19 vaccine – the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

And yesterday, it was also encouraging to see the Astra-Zeneca vaccine rollout begin in the first country.

One year on from WHO issuing its first Disease Outbreak News report about this virus, more than 30 countries have started vaccinating their high-risk populations with various COVID-19 vaccines.

The scientific community has set a new standard for vaccine development.

Now the international community must set a new standard for access.

COVAX has been backed by 190 countries and economies and I want to see all manufacturers channel supply to COVAX quickly so that rollouts can begin and those at high-risk are protected around the world.

We owe it morally to health workers everywhere who have been fighting this pandemic around the clock for the best part of a year, to vaccinate them all as soon as possible.

People must come first over short-term profits. It’s in countries self-interest to shun vaccine nationalism.

Vaccinating health workers and those at high risk of serious disease is the fastest way to stablise health systems, ensure all essential health services are up and running and that a truly global economic recovery can take place.

I urge all governments to work together and live up to their commitments to equitable distribution globally and all pharmaceutical groups to boost supply as quickly as possible and to fully participate in COVAX.

The hundred-hundred initiative driven by WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank is supporting over 100 countries to conduct rapid readiness assessments and develop country-specific plans for vaccines and other COVID-19 tools.

So far more than 90 countries have already completed the assessments and our teams are working around the clock to ensure that governments and health systems are ready for global vaccine rollout but we need consistent, predictable, affordable supply of safe and effective vaccines.