WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus
WHO Director-General Tedros GhebreyesusFile photo

WHO chief says disparity in access to vaccines is biggest risk to ending COVID-19 pandemic

Geneva, May 11, 2021

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the shocking global disparity in access to vaccines remained one of the biggest risks to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and pointed out that redressing this imbalance was an essential part of the solution.

But is not the only part, and not an immediate solution, he said, adding, "We cannot put all our eggs in one basket."

Speaking at a media briefing here on Monday, Ghebreyesus said that, globally, the world was now seeing a plateauing in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, with declines in most regions including the Americas and Europe, the two worst-affected regions.

"But it’s an unacceptably high plateau, with more than 5.4 million reported cases and almost 90 thousand deaths last week.

"Any decline is welcome, but we have been here before. Over the past year, many countries have experienced a declining trend in cases and deaths, have relaxed public health and social measures too quickly, and individuals have let down their guard, only for those hard-won gains to be lost.

"And cases and deaths are still increasing rapidly in WHO’s South-East Asia region, and there are countries in every region with increasing trends," he said.

He said the WHO Foundation was launching the “Together for India” appeal to raise funds to support WHO’s work in India, including for the purchase of oxygen, personal protective equipment and medicines.

"Globally, we are still in a perilous situation. The spread of variants, increased social mixing, the relaxation of public health and social measures and inequitable vaccination are all driving transmission.

"Yes, vaccines are reducing severe disease and death in countries that are fortunate enough to have them in sufficient quantities, and early results suggest that vaccines might also drive down transmission," he said.

Ghebreyesus said high- and upper-middle income countries represent 53% of the world’s population, but have received 83% of the world’s vaccines. By contrast, low- and lower-middle income countries account for 47% of the world’s population, but have received just 17% of the world’s vaccines.

"We have many vaccines for many diseases, but for each of them we still need a combination of vaccines and public health measures. The same is true with COVID-19.

"Vaccines prevent disease. But we can also prevent infection with public health tools that have been so effective in so many places," he said.

The WHO chief urged world leaders to use every tool at their disposal to drive transmission down, right now. "Even if your country has a downward trend, now is the time to surge your capacities," he said.

He said that, even in countries with the highest vaccination rates, public health capacities must be strengthened to prepare for the possibility of vaccine-evading variants, and for future emergencies.

"My message to individuals is, every contact you have with someone outside your household is a risk – the level of risk varies according to the type of contact, the duration of contact and the level of transmission where you live.

"Each contact might carry a small risk on its own, but the more contacts, the higher the risk.

"In many northern hemisphere countries where the weather is warmer, people are getting together for social gatherings. In the southern hemisphere, colder temperatures are driving people inside.

"Both situations carry different types of risk. But when you know your risk, you can lower your risk.

"There will come a time when we can all take off our masks, when we no longer have to keep our distance from each other, when we can once again go safely to concerts, sporting events, rallies and restaurants – as people in some countries are able to do now because they have no transmission.

"But for most of the world’s population who are not yet vaccinated, we’re not there yet.

"To get there, we continue to urge all countries to develop and implement comprehensive and cohesive national plans, based on the 10 pillars of WHO’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan.

"How quickly we end the pandemic, and how many sisters and brothers we lose along the way, depends on how quickly and how fairly we vaccinate a significant proportion of the global population, and how consistently we all follow proven public health measures," he added.


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