The World of International Organizations

WHO chief urges unity over ‘vaccine nationalism’

A photo illustration of global vaccine efforts (AN/Jernej Furman)
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GENEVA — Nations must pull together and stop competing over access to a potential COVID-19 vaccine if they want to beat the pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

Tedros called a virtual news briefing to denounce what he calls “vaccine nationalism” — a race among major powers to be the first to develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine. He urged all nations to join the COVAX Facility, a multilateral effort to accelerate the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee all nations will have fair and equitable access.

It is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and WHO, both based in Geneva, and by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, based in Oslo, Norway. Tedros said he sent a letter to all 194 member nations of the United Nations health agency, encouraging them to join.

“While there is a wish amongst leaders to protect their own people first, the response to this pandemic has to be collective,” he said. “This is not charity; we have learned the hard way that the fastest way to end this pandemic, and to reopen economies, is to start by protecting the highest risk populations everywhere, rather than the entire populations of just some countries.”

More than 21.9 million people have been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and at least 773,000 have died, including more than 170,000 in the United States and 108,000 in Brazil, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers. Some 13.8 million people have recovered from it.

No single nation can access the research and development, manufacturing and supply chain for all essential medicines and materials, Tedros said, which is why collaboration is the only way to ensure that essential workers are protected and proven treatments like dexamethasone get to those in need.

Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid used as an anti-inflammatory and for its immunosuppressant effects. It was tested in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in a British clinical trial, and was found to reduce mortality by about one third among critically ill patients on ventilators, according to WHO. It reduced mortality by about one fifth among critically ill patients who needed only oxygen.

Although researchers are developing more than 150 vaccines, only about two dozen are undergoing human studies and far fewer are in late-stage trials. A growing number of wealthy nations have aggressively sought to secure deals with drug makers to guarantee supplies of coronavirus vaccines.

The United States has committed almost US$10 billion for 700 million doses, while Britain has firmed up deals for 250 million doses. The European Union clinched promises of 300 million doses. Still other wealthy nations such as Australia, Japan and Switzerland have signed their own private deals.

Which is why WHO has been encouraging nations to sign onto the COVAX Facility, so all nations will have a a fair shot at procuring what they need when an effective and safe vaccine becomes available.

“Sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in each country’s national interest. No one is safe until everyone is safe,” said Tedros.

“As new diagnostics, medicines and vaccines come through the pipeline, it’s critical that countries don’t repeat the same mistakes,” he said. “We need to prevent vaccine nationalism.”

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