COVID-19 health emergency could be over this year, says World Health Organization

GENEVA >> The worst of the coronavirus pandemic – deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns – could be ended this year if huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief said today.

Dr Michael Ryan, speaking at a roundtable on vaccine inequality organized by the World Economic Forum, said that “we may never end the virus” because these pandemic viruses “eventually do part of the ecosystem”.

But “we have a chance of ending the public health emergency this year if we do the things that we’ve been talking about,” he said.

The WHO has denounced the imbalance in COVID-19 vaccinations between rich and poor countries as a catastrophic moral failure. Less than 10% of people in low-income countries have received even a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Ryan told the virtual gathering of world and business leaders that if vaccines and other tools are not shared fairly, the tragedy of the virus, which has so far killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide, will continue. .

“What we need to do is achieve low levels of disease incidence with maximum vaccination of our populations, so no one has to die,” Ryan said. “The problem is this: it is death. These are hospitalizations. It was the disruption of our social, economic and political systems that caused the tragedy, not the virus. »

Ryan also jumped into the growing debate over whether COVID-19 should be considered endemic, a label some countries like Spain have claimed to better help people live with the virus, or even a pandemic. – involving intensified measures that many countries have taken to combat the propagated.

“Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people; endemic HIV; endemic violence in our inner cities. Endemic in itself does not mean good. Endemic just means it’s here forever,” he said.

Public health officials have warned that COVID-19 is highly unlikely to be eliminated and say it will continue to kill people, albeit at much lower levels, even after it becomes endemic.

Panelist Gabriela Bucher, executive director of poverty relief organization Oxfam International, cited the “huge urgency” for more equitable distribution of vaccines and the need for large-scale production. She said resources to fight the pandemic were “hoarded by a few companies and a few shareholders”.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, denounced the “total breakdown of global cooperation and solidarity” over the past two years, saying it was “totally unacceptable” that few people in Africa have been vaccinated. His agency says only 10% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are fully immunized.

He also sought to quell the belief by some that vaccine hesitancy is widespread in Africa, citing studies that 80% of Africans would be willing to get vaccinated if vaccines were available.

The comments came on the second day of the online alternative to the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering, which was postponed due to pandemic-related health concerns.

In speeches at the event, world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed approaches to the pandemic. He said his country, which quickly rolled out a large-scale vaccination campaign, has a strategy to be “at the forefront of drugs and vaccines” against COVID-19.

Israel’s Health Ministry says 62% of people there are fully vaccinated, including with boosters.

Citing advanced research in Israel, Bennett said, “We want to be the first in the world to know how vaccines and new variants respond to each other.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said his country has high levels of vaccination because society values ​​protecting the elderly and vulnerable. He plans to keep strict border controls in place until the end of February.

He said he was trying to balance restrictions with keeping the economy open, but a “zero COVID policy against the omicron variant is neither possible nor appropriate.”

In a separate press briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the omicron variant “continues to sweep the world”, adding that 18 million new cases of COVID-19 have been reported. last week.

Aubrey L. Morgan