China, Republic of Korea Join COVAX Global Vaccine Pool – WHO Urges Countries To Jumpstart Vaccine Campaigns
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying at Friday’s press conference.

China has announced that it will join the WHO co-sponsored COVAX vaccine procurement pool, along with the Republic of Korea.

WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros described it as a major boost to the global effort to manufacture and distribute 2 billion vaccines worldwide equitably by the end of 2021.

“This week, China and the Republic of Korea have now joined the COVAX facility, bringing the total number of countries and economies that are part of the global initiative for vaccine accesses to 171,” said Dr Tedros, speaking at a WHO press conference on Friday.

Tedros said that the facility would enable WHO to “distribute vaccines simultaneously to priority populations, including health care workers, older people and those with underlying conditions.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General at a press conference on Friday.

In a related move, the WHO Director General said, “We also welcome the announcement by one vaccine developer, Moderna, that it will not enforce its patent rights over its COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.”

The company, in an announcement Thursday to shareholders, said it would “not enforce” its COVID-19-related patents against other companies making vaccines to combat the pandemic – and would also be willing to license intellectual property for their COVID-19 vaccines for the post pandemic period.

But Moderna’s chief executives stopped short of saying whether the company would formally offer its vaccines through the COVAX procurement pool that WHO and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are co-sponsoring, or whether it would engage with the ‘COVID-19 Technology Access Pool,’ which aims to reduce IP barriers for low and middle income countries that need to access COVID-19 health products.   

Said Dr Tedros, “We look forward to learning more about what this announcement means in terms of technology transfer. We appreciate this act of solidarity, which is in line with the principles of the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool.”

In announcing the move to join the vaccine facility, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support Covax.” 

The moves by China, as well as Korea, mark a major signal of support for the global initiative, particularly after the United States in September said it didn’t want to be “constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.” The US go-it-alone approach to COVID-19 vaccine access and distribution, is based on its own sizable pre-purchase agreements with leading pharma developers of front-runner vaccine candidates, including Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. The European Union has also thrown its support behind the facility, along with non EU  Switzerland and Norway, as well as Japan.

Vaccine Campaigns Need to Be Restarted

In other matters, Dr Tedros called upon the global community to jumpstart stalled immunization campaigns for other diseases, following a meeting on Wednesday of WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on Immunization.

“Millions of children globally are missing out on life saving vaccines. Rapidly restoring immunization clinics, campaigns, and outreach activities is the only way to prevent predictable outbreaks and deaths from diseases like measles and polio,” said Dr Tedros at a press conference on Friday. 

A report by SAGE found that over 80 vaccination campaigns have been either delayed or cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic in more than 50 countries, leaving millions of children and adolescents unprotected against deadly, but vaccine preventable diseases.

The WHO expert group highlighted the double danger that interrupting vaccine campaigns could pose during the pandemic, saying it could lead to a resurgence of deadly preventable diseases, including measles, polio, diphtheria, and yellow fever. 

Press conference on Friday on the recent biannual meeting of Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization.

The interruptions have been due both to the extra burden on health systems caused by COVID-19, as well as the decreased demand for vaccination because of national lockdowns and physical distancing requirements, the expert committee said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 14 million children under the age of one did not receive any vaccines. According to a recent study, the pandemic and national response policies reduced daily vaccination visits by 52 percent in Karachi, Pakistan and immunization doses given by outreach services dropped by 88 percent. 

Backsliding could prompt renewed outbreaks 

Alejandro Cravioto, Chair of SAGE, underscored the importance of learning from the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an outbreak of measles was occurring simultaneously in 2019. The measles outbreak had higher rates of deaths and confirmed cases than Ebola, with the worst impact on children. 

“Our immunization services are really compromised when we have another problem we’re handling,” said Cravioto at a WHO press conference earlier on Friday. “I think what is important is to make sure that we see all of these as a single entity, as the single problem that we have.

We might be vaccinating the elderly against COVID. And we have to make sure that we’re vaccinating the younger ones against all the other diseases for which we have a vaccine. But this has to be an integrated approach.”

Guidelines produced by SAGE in March provide countries with a roadmap to the provision of immunization services during the COVID-19 pandemic. While individual countries are advised to make domestic risk assessments, SAGE informs decision makers of the necessity to continue immunization services – prioritizing catch-up immunization on vaccine preventable diseases – and strengthen health system capacities and provision of essential health services. 

“We have to stand back up the immunization program, which is the bedrock for primary health care services in so many countries, and will be the bedrock for the delivery of COVID vaccines,” said Kate O’Brien, Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO.

WHO Addresses the Toll of COVID-19 on Mental Health

In his Friday briefing, Dr Tedros also highlighted the need for increased attention to and investment in mental health, a deeply neglected issue. Close to one billion people globally are living with a mental health disorder and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide, according to WHO. 

The lack of access to quality mental health services is especially prevalent in low and middle income countries – with over 75 percent of people with mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders receiving no treatment. And on average only two percent of countries’ health budgets are spent on mental health. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health issues and has triggered new ones. A recent WHO survey found that over 90 percent of the world’s countries reported disruptions of critical mental health services as a result of COVID-19.

“It’s time to increase investment in mental health services on a massive scale so that access to quality mental health services becomes a reality for everyone,” said Dr Tedros. 

On Saturday, World Mental Health Day, the WHO is hosting an online global advocacy event, The Big Event for Mental Health on its @WHO Twitter and Facebook channels. The event, including musicians, film, artists and speakers, co-designed with United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation of Mental Health, to focus attention on mental health and increase funding for mental health services.

Image Credits: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, WHO.

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