The Clock Is Ticking For Vaccine Equity, But WHO Remains Hopeful
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, at the press briefing on Thursday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is hopeful that all healthcare workers can be vaccinated by mid-April, but the clock is ticking away, leaving rich countries only nine days to donate surplus COVID-19 vaccines to the global COVAX facility – which has run out of doses at a crucial time.

So far, the WHO has not received any donations since it called on countries last week to donate surplus doses they have accumulated, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference on Thursday. 

“Last week, I made an urgent request to countries with surplus vaccines that have WHO emergency use listings to share 10 million doses with COVAX,” said Dr. Tedros. “This challenge has been heard, but we’re yet to receive commitments for those. I’m still hopeful that some forward looking and enlightened leaders will step up.”

COVAX Facing “Serious Challenges” 

Although the global COVAX facility has already delivered 35 million doses to more than 78 countries across the globe, it is facing “serious” shortfalls in doses – mainly because of India’s recent move to halt vaccine exports to the rest of the world as it attempts to fend off an outbreak that has grown to some 70,000 cases a day from only 15,000 since early March – an increase in cases by a factor of four in just a month. 

Despite the WHO’s call on rich countries and vaccine manufacturers to donate surplus vaccine doses last week, a whopping 100 countries still lack adequate access to vaccines, said Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, who also spoke at the press conference. Of those, two dozen countries that have signed up to the WHO co-sponsored COVAX initiative are ready to begin vaccinating healthcare workers – but they lack the supplies to begin before the 100th day of 2021 – the target date WHO had said for vaccine campaigns to start everywhere in the world. These include Cameroon, Haiti, Congo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, the Dominican Republic and Mauritania, among others. 

“I know this is a challenging time for many countries as cases and hospitalization are spiking, but conversely, it’s when cases are spiking that it’s the most important time to share vaccines equitably and protect our workers, and at-risk communities,” Dr Tedros said.

Going forward, the concerning gaps in equity “could be addressed” by increasing local and regional vaccine production capacity and by moving forward on the intellectual property waiver spearheaded by South Africa and India, said the WHO Director General. 

“I think we should be able to produce vaccines everywhere, all over the world without intellectual property rights being a problem,” added Koca. “So that’s why I think we need to be taking concrete steps about this issue.”

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca at the press briefing on Thursday.

Turkey Announces Digital Platform To Commemorate Healthcare Workers

Meanwhile, in celebration of the International Year of Health and Care Workers, Koca announced the creation of a digital platform to tell the stories of the heroic and essential work carried out by healthcare workers since the pandemic began. The platform will be run in collaboration with WHO. 

“The whole of humanity is grateful to you right now,” said Koka. “[Your] stories need to be told in the common language of humanity. For this purpose, as a first step, we are working on creating a digital platform with WHO, to serve as a memorial dedicated to health and care workers.”

Since the start of the pandemic, millions of healthcare workers have been infected with the coronavirus and thousands have died. Those that have survived are struggling with a range of mental health issues, including heightened stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and exhaustion. 

That toll, said Dr Tedros, has been far too great – but it can be reversed by strengthening the capacity of the healthcare workforce, improving salaries, and ensuring healthcare workers are equipped with adequate personal protective equipment so they can do their job safely and effectively. 

“Far too many health and care workers have died in the pandemic,” he said. “As we work to end the pandemic and recover together….We must ensure that they are trained, protected, and supported to do their job safely and effectively.”

Image Credits: Our World In Data, WHO.

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