By Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus*
Geneva: On Sunday, I left Ukraine, where alongside my Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan and WHO colleagues we saw firsthand hospitals that have been bombed, we spoke with health workers and we met patients that were physically injured and mentally exhausted.
We met with the Prime Minister, Minister of Health and other officials and saw their commitment to health despite the difficult circumstances. We told them that the WHO would continue to do whatever is needed to support the people of Ukraine.
We thanked WHO colleagues who are on the ground and working around the clock to get life-saving supplies to those that need them most. Some of our Ukrainian staff have lost loved ones and their own homes, but they have kept working to support the health needs of the people of Ukraine. We pay tribute to each and every one of them.
WHO continues to deliver trauma and emergency supplies and medical equipment. We visited warehouses in Rzeszow and Lviv and had the honour to hand over 20 ambulances to the Deputy Minister of Health that is designed to function in even the most damaged and inaccessible areas.
To support our work, WHO has issued an updated appeal for almost US $150 million, detailing the resources we need for Ukraine and refugee-receiving and hosting countries until August. We thank those who have contributed already, but we still face a funding gap of US $100 million. These funds will support access to essential health services, including trauma care, for six million people.
But everything WHO is doing, can’t meet all the needs of people in Ukraine right now. 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.
The Ukraine situation also made me think about growing up in war. The smells, the sounds and memories you lock away because, to be frank – they’re just too difficult. War really is hell. It makes everything worse and development next to impossible. Conversely, peace is foundational to everything positive.
Sadly, in Tigray, Ethiopia, people are suffering due to one of the longest blockades in history. Seven weeks ago, a truce was called but there are still nowhere near enough supplies getting into the region. Only one convoy of 17 trucks of humanitarian assistance crossed into Tigray last week, carrying 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. Things are so bad that journalists cannot even access the region, removing the world’s eyes to what is happening.
I ask the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to end the siege now, get supplies into the region on a regular and sustainable basis, and work for peace.
In Yemen, we are seeing increased food insecurity, with pockets of famine-like conditions resulting from the conflict, economic shocks, reduced humanitarian funding, decreased access to basic essential services, and the Ukraine situation having a direct impact.
In the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, we’re also seeing food insecurity driven by conflict.
We continue to call for peace for health and health for peace across the world. There are too many lives being lost right now due to a multidimensional crisis that spiralling downward and we need true leadership across the world to work collectively for peace.
On to COVID-19, the rising cases in more than 50 countries highlight the volatility of this virus. Sub-variants are driving a major surge in cases. For the moment at least, hospitalisations and deaths are not rising as quickly as in previous waves. Omicron, specifically BA.4 and BA.5, is driving the upsurge in South Africa, while BA.2 is dominant worldwide.
The relatively high population immunity from vaccination and previous waves is keeping COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates at a comparably low level compared to previous waves. But this is not guaranteed for places where vaccination coverage is low.
With this backdrop, Global Summit on COVID-19 co-hosted by United States President [Joe] Biden this Thursday [May 12, 2022) is another opportunity to focus minds on the job at hand. Our task is to prepare for the worst so that countries are in the best position to respond to what comes next.
Worst-case scenarios for COVID-19 include a variant that evades current immunity, transmits more easily and/or causes greater mortality. South African scientists have urged further vaccination as the key to mitigating the next wave of COVID-19. We agree and WHO continues to advocate that all countries should work toward 70 per cent vaccination starting with vaccinating and boosting the most vulnerable.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, some countries won’t manage it by mid-2022. But if we deprioritise based on these factors we’d be risking waves of death that can knock out health systems and cause further backsliding on all other health issues.
This pandemic is not over and we need all leaders to step up to boost population immunity and work collectively to get tests, treatments and vaccines to last-mile populations. Vaccination is the best way to save lives, protect communities and health systems and minimise cases of post-COVID-19 condition or “long COVID.”
Long COVID is devastating and debilitating for individuals – both young and old – communities and economies. Governments need to take it seriously and provide integrated care, psychosocial support and sick leave for those patients that are suffering from it.
WHO continues to work with partners and patient groups to accelerate research and develop clinical best practices, including rehabilitation. We encourage member states, health facilities, and research networks working on long COVID to contribute to the WHO clinical data platform to better understand the condition and provide evidence guidance to support those suffering from it.
Vaccination can help mitigate the effects of long COVID and is yet another sound reason for people to get vaccinated and for the Member States to not give up.
WHO is also hoping to see progress at the Global Summit on COVID-19 so that antivirals – like nirmatrelvier/ritonavir – and tests, are shared fairly around the world.
We remain concerned that low-, and middle-income countries remain unable to access antivirals and that testing is rapidly decreasing in many places. WHO is working very closely with ACT-Accelerator partners on securing contracts that can increase availability and affordability.
And there are four key areas to improve access that we’re calling on Pfizer to help deliver.
First, there needs to be increased geographical scope on the licensing Pfizer signed with the Medicines Patent Pool. Too many countries, including most of Latin America, cannot access the drug at the moment.
Second, drug prices need to be affordable for countries and transparent.
Third, there must be no additional contractual requirements that hamper/delay access at the country level. Delays cost lives.
Fourth, continue to support increased generic manufacturing around the world so that we can increase supply quickly.
Finally, at the Global Summit on COVID-19, leaders must 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?
*Remarks delivered by the World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference in Geneva today.