Most Countries Can Expect Vaccine Supply in Early 2021 – But The Pandemic is Far From Over, Warns WHO
WHO Director General has said he is “concerned” by the growing perception that the pandemic is over, as WHO officials reasserted the need to adhere to prevention methods like wearing a mask or social distancing.

While the UK and US are likely to start vaccinating its citizens against COVID-19 before the end of the year, the 189 countries that are part of the COVAX initiative should expect to start getting vaccines towards the end of the first quarter of 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist.

Currently through COVAX,  the vaccine arm of the WHO-led Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, WHO has agreed deals that could provide 700 million doses of a COVID vaccine.

“But that’s not sufficient,” said Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s Chief Scientist, at a media briefing on Friday. “The goal is to get at least two billion doses by the end of 2021, which would be enough to vaccinate approximately 20%, of the populations of the countries that are part of COVAX.”

She stressed that equitable access was key, as there is “no point in having products that do not reach the majority of the world’s population”.

COVAX, a global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 products, covers 90% of the global population.

The programme would be able to negotiate good prices with manufacturers because of the volume of its orders, but it “urgently needs another US$5 billion in order to meet that goal of two billion does”, stressed Swaminathan, adding that political leaders around the world also had to demonstrate their commitment to equity by “sharing available doses of vaccines fairly around the world”.

WHO ‘Concerned’ by Growing Belief the Pandemic is Over

Describing the UK’s emergency authorization of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine as a sign that there is “light at the end of the tunnel”, the pandemic is far from over, warned the WHO  Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Dr Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director for Emergencies.

Many countries are currently experiencing second spikes in cases, with heightening transmission rates, as others enter national “circuit-breaker” lockdowns. Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s Executive Director of Emergencies flagged that “there is no prospect that vaccines will end that transmission in time”.

“WHO is concerned that there is a growing perception that the pandemic is over,” Dr Tedros warned. “The truth is, at present, many places are witnessing a very high transmission of the virus, which is putting enormous pressure on hospitals, intensive care units and health workers.”

Supporting Dr Tedros, Ryan, said that “vaccines do not equal zero COVID” and while “vaccination will add a major, powerful tool to the toolkit, by themselves, they will not do the job [of eliminating the virus]”. 

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, appealed for patience and adherence to wearing masks and social distancing to contain the virus: “The next six months require … strict adherence and vigilance to keep ourselves safe.”

Ryan added: “We need to recognise that the vaccine will not be with everyone, early next year.”

Maria Van Kerkhove
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead.

He cited that many authorities around the world were following WHO advice: to  prioritise the safety of frontline workers, older persons and people with underlying conditions.

“Focusing on those groups will significantly reduce severe disease and that will take the pressure off the health system that will take a lot of the sorrow of this pandemic. But it will not stop the transmission by itself,” he closed.

“We’re all tired and we need hope, but we also need to be realistic. We’re in a pivotal moment and there are some countries whose health systems are at a point of collapse, and right now we have got to take the heat out of this transmission in order that those health systems can cope and bring that vaccine on quickly and safely.”

WHO: Countries Should Prepare Systems for Vaccine Distribution

Dr Tedros called on all countries to conduct “readiness assessments that take into account cold chain capacity, health worker capacity, micro-planning, initial target populations and training”.

Establishing the framework for a national deployment strategy and vaccination plan ahead far in advance would help identify where potential bottlenecks might occur, or prevent them entirely.

“This means passing any legislation and policies needed to expedite the process ensuring the regulatory process is fit for purpose, and confirming that the financing is in place,” he said.

Professor Kate O’Brien, WHO Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, stressed that “no country is going to have enough supply from the very beginning to immunise everybody who should be immunised’.

“With vaccines, we are really at the very, very beginning. And we do expect to have more vaccines that will reach authorization based on the efficacy trials that are being conducted.

“We’re also seeing in the media some concerns around who will go first. Prioritisation in every country is going to need to take place, and it’s really critical that the communities, and the population of each country has a clear understanding of what the basis was for those choices and, and why there are certain groups that are going first and which groups there are and the evidence is for that.”

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons: Alteo31300, WHO.

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