China’s Zero-COVID Strategy is ‘Unsustainable’, says Tedros After Six-Week Shanghai Lockdown
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

China’s zero-COVID approach was no longer sustainable in the face of the more infectious but less lethal Omicron, WHO Secretary-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing on Tuesday.

This follows the six-week lockdown of 25 million residents of the Chinese city of Shanghai and restrictions on the movement of people in Beijing, with reports of people being separated from their children, being forced into sparse government quarantine facilities, and running out of food.

“When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think that it’s sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” Tedros said.

Transitting to another strategy will be very important,” he added. “We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus. I think a shift will be very important.”

However, last week China’s ruling Communist Party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee vowed to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero-Covid,’ and resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny our country’s epidemic prevention policies”, according to CNN.

We need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” said Dr Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies, who praised China for its low death toll of around 15,000.

There was a need to show “due respect to individual and human rights” and to  “balance the control measures against the impact they have on society”, added Ryan.

Ryan stressed the importance of countries “having the ability to adjust according to the circumstances, according to what you see in the data, and according to the best benefit for your population”, and that Dr Tedros has been involved in in-depth discussions with Chinese colleagues to find an exit strategy for China’s zero-COVID policy.

WHO’s lead on COVID-19, Dr Maria van Kerkhove, added that, in the light of the evolution of the virus to the more transmissable Omicron and its sub-lineages, it was “really not possible” to find all cases and stop all transmissions.

“But what we need to do is drive transmission down because the virus is circulating at such an intense level,” said Van Kerkhove, adding that WHO had the responsibility to give member states the best advice possible.

Biden’s Global COVID-19 Summit

The Global COVID-19 Summit hosted by US President Joe Biden on Thursday comes amid a surge in the virus in 50 countries, constrained access to antiviral treatments, and no agreement on a patent waiver on COVID vaccines, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Omicron lineage BA.2 is driving most of the global surge, while sublineages BA.4 and BA.5 are driving cases in South Africa, WHO Secretary-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing on Tuesday.

“The relatively high population immunity from vaccination and previous waves is keeping COVID-19 hospitalisation and death rates at a comparably low level compared to previous waves. But this is not guaranteed for places where vaccination coverage is low,” warned Tedros.

He also called for leaders attending the global summit to “agree to end the stalemate at the World Trade Organisation on the temporary waiver of intellectual property on COVID-19 tools”. 

“Last week, we estimated that almost 15 million people have already died of COVID-19 Are we waiting for a worse pandemic to strike before we activate the waiver?”

The summit provides “another opportunity to focus minds on the job at hand”, including “to prepare for the worst so that countries are in the best position to respond to what comes next”.

No equitable access to antivirals

Tedros added that WHO also hoped that the summit would result in “antivirals and tests being shared fairly around the world”. 

WHO is concerned that countries are unable to access the antivirals such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid, which cuts severe disease by 85% in vulnerable people – but only if they get access to it early.

Tedros called on Pfizer to expand access to Paxlovid by increasing the geographical scope of its voluntary licencing agreement signed with the Medicines Patent Pool (MCC) as “too many countries, including most of Latin America, cannot access the drug at the moment”. 

Pfizer’s agreement with the MPP limits the licenses to companies producing for 95 low- and middle-income countries.

Tedros also called for the price to be affordable, and the removal of contractual requirements such as indemnification and liability obligations that are hampering access.

WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan added that access to antivirals was following the same inequitable path as vaccine access had earlier in the pandemic.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan

While Pfizer was “awash” with doses, many had been pre-booked by high-income countries while generic versions produced by companies licensed by the MPP were only expected in 2023, she said.

“The available supplies should be shared more equitably through the ACT Accelerator, as we had requested for vaccines so that high-risk people around the world can have access to the drug,” said Swaminathan. 

“And secondly, the geographic restrictions that have been imposed actually need to be removed so that the generic production will eventually be able to reach across the world for people regardless of the income status.”

However, Ryan, WHO’s head of Health Emergencies, said that the summit was aimed at fixing all the problems in the supply chain system relating to COVID-10 vaccines, treatment and tests.

“We need commitment from all states to continue vaccinating and to work on vaccine hesitancy, to work on logistics, to work on the last mile and to work on cold chains to ensure that these life-saving products are actually delivered,” said Ryan.

The WHO and partners including Gavi, CEPI and UNICEF, issued an appeal on Tuesday for more funding for the ACT-Accelerator, which has only raised just over 10% its our financing needs.

True leadership needed to bring peace  

The WHO was short of $100 million to meet the health needs of Ukraine and neighbouring countries that are hosting refugees, said Tedros, who visited the country over the weekend.

“These funds will support access to essential services, including trauma care for six million people,” said Tedros.

“But what Ukraine really needs more than anything else is peace. And so again, we continue to call on the Russian Federation to stop this war.”

Tedros also accused the Ethiopian government of deliberately starving people in Tigray “in one of the longest blockades in history”, while barring journalists from travelling to the area.

“Only one convoy of 17 trucks of humanitarian assistance crossed into Tigray last week getting food and water and sanitation supplies. Current supplies of food are too little to sustain life. The health system has collapsed. People are starving to death and it is intentional,” said Tedros.

People in Yemen were experiencing food insecurity and reduced humanitarian funding related to the Ukraine conflict, while conflict in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa were also experiencing food insecurity driven by conflict. 

“Across the world, there are too many lives being lost right now due to a deep multi-dimensional crises that spiralling downward. We need true leadership across the world to work collectively for peace,” appealed Tedros.


Image Credits: CGTN.

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