The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday that six months after first sounding the international alarm over COVID-19, the UN agency is now intensely focused on shepherding global vaccine candidates through the necessary trials, and guaranteeing rapid, fair and equitable access to them for all countries.
With the ripple effects of the pandemic upending people’s lives, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that to move forward, “the best bet is to do it together”, as he briefed reporters from Geneva on the latest developments.
Phases two and three
Among them, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, launched in April, has shown results, Tedros said, with nine vaccine candidates in the COVAX portfolio now advancing through Phase 2 or 3 trials.
The portfolio, already the broadest in the world, is expanding, he added. Countries representing 70 per cent of the global population have registered or expressed interest in being part of the initiative.
In terms of therapeutics, he said the first proven therapy for severe COVID-19, dexamethasone, was announced in June and is now scaling up. More than 50 tests are in evaluation and new evidence has been generated around rapid antigen detection tests that could be “game changing”.
IMF: Pandemic to cost $12 trillion over two years
Stressing that the ACT Accelerator is the only global framework for ensuring the fair and equitable allocation of COVID-19 tools, he said that to succeed, it must be properly financed.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the pandemic is costing $375 billion a month and predicts a $12 trillion cumulative loss to the global economy over two years. The G-20 group of leading economies alone, has mobilized more than $10 trillion in fiscal stimulus, to treat and mitigate the consequences of the pandemic – three and a half times what the world dispensed to address the global financial crisis of 2008.
ACT Accelerator, a bargain
By contrast, funding the ACT Accelerator will cost a “tiny fraction” compared to the alternative, where economies retract further and require continued fiscal stimulus packages, Tedros said.
Before spending another $10 trillion on the consequences of the next wave, he said the world will need to spend at least $100 billion on new tools, especially any new vaccines that are developed.
The most immediate need is $31.3 billion for the ACT Accelerator – the only up-and-running initiative that brings together all the global research and development, manufacturing, regulatory stipulations, purchasing and procurement needed, to end the pandemic.
Spread the risk, share the reward
“Picking individual winners is an expensive risky gamble,” he said. “The ACT Accelerator enables Governments to spread the risk and share the reward.”
To be sure, development of vaccines is long, complex, risky and expensive, Tedros said, noting that the vast majority fail in the early stages.
The world needs multiple vaccine candidates to maximize the chances of finding a winner that works.
Excess demand and competition for supply is already accelerating “vaccine nationalism” and risk of price gauging, he said: the kind of market failure that only global solidarity, public investment and engagement can solve.
The ACT Accelerator funding gap cannot be covered by traditional development assistance alone, he said. The best solution is blend of development assistance and financing from stimulus packages. It is the fastest way to end the pandemic and ensure swift global recovery.
Globally coordinated vaccine roll-out will have multiplier effect
Stimulus investments and the globally coordinated roll-out of new vaccines, tests and therapeutics, will have a major multiplier effect on global economies. “There is hope”, he said. “If we all deploy tools at our disposal today, and collectively invest in new ones through the Accelerator, we have a route out of this pandemic.”
Our best chance to be successful is always do it together -- WHO chief
Ebola in DRC
Dr. Tedros also addressed the latest outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Equateur province, a worrying development with 86 cases.
While the geographic spread of the outbreak is vast, with many areas only accessible by helicopter or boat, he said 100 WHO staff are working with the health ministry, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and other partners, to stamp out infection.
In addition, he said WHO had released $2.5 million from its contingency fund for emergencies and its regional emergency response fund to support immediate needs.
To end the outbreak, WHO needs additional funding and the agency is working with surrounding provinces and neighbouring countries to enhance preparedness, he said.
“This is not just a matter for a country’s health security,” Tedros assured. “It is a matter of global health security.” Whether it is COVID-19, Ebola or other high impact epidemics, the world must be prepared and respond quickly. “Our best chance to be successful is always do it together.”