The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief said Tuesday that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic — deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns — could be over this year if huge inequities in vaccines and medicines are quickly addressed.
Dr Michael Ryan told a panel discussion on vaccine equity hosted by the World Economic Forum that “we may never end this virus” because the pandemic virus “eventually becomes part of the ecosystem”.
But “if we do what we’ve been talking about, we have a chance this year to end the public health emergency,” he said.
The WHO has slammed the imbalance in COVID-19 vaccinations between rich and poor countries as a catastrophic moral failure. Fewer than 10% of people in low-income countries have received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Ryan told a virtual gathering of world and business leaders that the tragedy of the virus that has so far killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide will continue if vaccines and other tools are not shared fairly.
“What we need to do is reduce the incidence of disease by vaccinating our population to the greatest extent possible so that no one will die,” Ryan said. “The problem is: it’s the death. It’s the hospitalization. It’s the destruction of our social, economic, political system that caused this tragedy, not the virus.”
Ryan has also been embroiled in a growing debate over whether COVID-19 should be considered endemic, with some countries such as Spain calling for the label to help better deal with the virus, or remain a pandemic — involving many countries Intensified measures to combat the new coronavirus spread.
“Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands; endemic HIV; endemic violence in our inner cities. Endemic doesn’t mean good by itself. Endemic just means it’s always there,” he said.
Public health officials have warned that COVID-19 is highly unlikely to be eradicated and said it will continue to kill people, albeit at much lower levels, even after it becomes endemic.
Gabriela Bucher, executive director of the anti-poverty group Oxfam International and a panelist, said the need for more equitable distribution of vaccines and mass production was “very urgent”. Resources to fight the pandemic are “hoarded by a few companies and minority shareholders,” she said.
John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, condemned the “complete collapse of global cooperation and solidarity” over the past two years, saying it was “totally unacceptable” that only 7% of Africa’s population was fully vaccinated.
He also sought to dispel some perceptions that vaccine hesitancy is widespread in Africa, citing studies that suggest 80 percent of the continent’s population is ready to be vaccinated if it becomes available.
The comments came a day after online alternatives to the annual World Economic Forum gathering, which was postponed due to pandemic health concerns.
In speeches at the event, world leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed ways to deal with the pandemic. He said his country quickly launched a broad vaccination campaign with a strategy of “being at the forefront of medicines and vaccines” to fight COVID-19.
Citing advanced Israeli research, Bennett said, “We want to be the first in the world to understand how vaccines and new variants interact with each other.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said separately that Japan’s vaccination level is high because society attaches importance to protecting the elderly and vulnerable groups. He plans to maintain strict border controls until the end of February.
He said he was trying to strike a balance between restrictions and keeping the economy open, but “a so-called zero-COVID policy for omicron variants is not possible or appropriate.”
In a separate news conference on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the omicron variant of COVID-19 “continues to sweep the world” and said 18 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported last week.