The World Health Organisation has called on donors to ensure all countries have equitable access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines by stepping up funding for needy countries.
Speaking during the virtual media briefing on COVID-19 on Friday in Geneva, the Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the financing gap to provide COVID-19 vaccines for everyone, everywhere, is an urgent priority.
The appeal is coming in the wake of plans by the United Kingdom to start rolling out a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, with more countries expected to follow.
“To have safe and effective vaccines against a virus that was completely unknown to us only a year ago is an astounding scientific achievement.
“But an even greater achievement would be to ensure all countries enjoy the benefits of science equitably,” Ghebreyesus said.
Already, the international community has established a mechanism, known as the COVAX Facility, aimed at ensuring all countries have equal access to any vaccines, once developed.
Nearly 190 countries are participating, and the goal is to deliver two billion doses by the end of 2021.
The WHO chief, however, noted that there is an immediate funding gap of $4.3 billion to procure vaccines for the most needy countries.
“I urge donors to fill this gap quickly so that vaccines can be secured, lives can be saved and a truly global economic recovery is accelerated,” he said.
Ghebreyesus further appealed to world leaders to translate political commitment for equitable vaccine access into action.
This is even as the UN agency and its partners are assisting countries to strengthen their supply chains in preparation for delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Tedros noted that nearly one billion doses of three vaccine candidates have already been secured, and that further deals will be announced in the near future.
He also said evaluation of the first requests from countries eligible for assistance under the COVAX Facility is also underway.
The WHO revealed that it would soon be making its own determination as to whether some COVID-19 vaccines will be ready for rollout.
Several manufacturers have been submitting trial data to the WHO for emergency-use licensing.
However, the Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, clarified that only those with Phase 3 clinical trial results would be considered.
“We started with the Pfizer dossier; we expect also to have the Moderna followed by the AstraZeneca dossiers examined in the next few weeks.
“And we will be coming out with the decision whether it is receiving an emergency use license or not,” she said.
Dr. Swaminathan further noted that the WHO is working with the International Coalition for Medical Regulatory Agencies (ICMRA) to speed up things further.
Several national regulators, the UN body noted have also volunteered to assist with the assessments.
She recommended that countries would need to have national vaccination plans and related communications strategies in place.
“It is important for authorities to explain the deployment process to citizens, because things are happening extremely fast and people are anxious for information”, she added.
The WHO official said surveys indicate that most of the world’s population wants a COVID-19 vaccine, but at the same time, many have questions concerning the process.
Dr. Swaminathan noted that given that doses initially will be in limited supply, the public also needs to understand why priority will be given to frontline workers, the elderly and other at-risk groups.
“And the more open and transparent we can be, the more likely it is that people will have the trust and confidence and would not only want to take the vaccine, but would also be patient and wait for their turn”, she said.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO Senior Adviser, explained that processes for the vaccine emergence were established to meet the goal of providing vaccines for all.
“We are indeed looking at these products though the WHO Emergency Use Listing Procedure”, he said.
“At the same time, we have an exceptional procedure in place where some products that are approved by what we call a stringent regulatory authority, can also be considered by the COVAX Facility, so there will be no barrier to the speed with which these products could potentially be used globally,” he said.
The WHO said it is working with countries to better define COVID-19 re-infection and how often it occurs.
Already, laboratories in several countries have detected that some people who have had the disease, have gone on to be infected again.
This is as the dynamics of the pandemic continues to unfold and health experts continue to understand more about long-term COVID-19, which is different from re-infection.
Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19, said, “It doesn’t seem to be happening very often, but we can’t quantify that at the current moment.”
“Long COVID-19 is when a person develops a mild case of the disease and seems to slightly recover, but then suffers longer-term impacts.
“We are learning more and more about what Long COVID is, in terms of the effects on the body.
“It seems to affect many different organ systems. It’s not just a respiratory illness of two weeks. It seems to persist for months,” she said.
The WHO revealed that its experts have met with some Long COVID patients, who want their condition to be recognized as real.
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