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Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 14 May 2021

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  • At present, only 0.3% of vaccine supply is going to low-income countries. Trickle down vaccination is not an effective strategy for fighting a deadly respiratory virus.
  • India remains hugely concerning. But it’s not only India that has emergency needs. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Egypt are just some of the countries that are dealing with spikes in cases and hospitalizations.
  • Vaccine supply remains a key challenge, but this week I have been pleased to see leaders and manufacturers working to address some of these issues.
  • WHO has again convened researchers and scientists from around the world to update the Research and Innovation Roadmap to take stock of what we’ve learned and identify the most pressing knowledge gaps. It’s amazing how far the world has come in less than 18 months, but I have high hopes that breakthrough innovation will continue at record pace.

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Earlier this week, I was vaccinated against COVID-19.

It was a bittersweet moment.

On the one hand, vaccination is a triumph of science and global solidarity.

Alongside public health measures, vaccination is key to controlling this pandemic and I am very grateful to the health workers at the Geneva University Hospitals, HUG, for helping me play my part.

However, my thoughts were very much with the health workers around the world who have been fighting this pandemic for more than a year.

The fact that so many are still not protected is a sad reflection on the gross distortion in access to vaccines across the globe.

Last September in the Economist we warned about the threat of vaccine nationalism and some said we were being alarmist.

In January, I spoke about the potential unfolding of a moral catastrophe.

Unfortunately, we are now witnessing this play out.

In a handful of rich countries, which bought up the majority of the vaccine supply, lower risk groups are now being vaccinated.

I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents, but right now I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines to COVAX.

Because in low and lower-middle income countries, vaccine supply has not been enough to even immunize health and care workers, and hospitals are being inundated with people that need lifesaving care urgently.

At present, only 0.3% of vaccine supply is going to low-income countries.

Trickle down vaccination is not an effective strategy for fighting a deadly respiratory virus.

India remains hugely concerning, with several states continuing to see a worrying number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

WHO is responding and has shipped thousands of oxygen concentrators, tents for mobile field hospitals, masks and other medical supplies. And we thank all the stakeholders who are supporting India.

But it’s not only India that has emergency needs.

Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Egypt are just some of the countries that are dealing with spikes in cases and hospitalizations.

Some countries in the Americas still have high numbers of cases and as a region, the Americas accounted for 40% of all COVID-19 deaths last week. There are also spikes in some countries in Africa.

These countries are in heightened response mode and WHO will continue to provide support in all ways possible.

COVID-19 has already cost more than 3.3 million lives and we’re on track for the second year of this pandemic to be far more deadly than the first.

Saving lives and livelihoods with a combination of public health measures and vaccination – not one or the other – is the only way out of the pandemic.

Vaccine supply remains a key challenge, but this week I have been pleased to see leaders and manufacturers working to address some of these issues.

First, there have been a number of new country announcements about sharing vaccines with COVAX, which is the fastest way to ensure equitable rollout of vaccines.

Second, new deals involving tech-transfer and sharing of know-how between international manufacturers to scale up vaccine production have been announced.

And third, leaders including the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, have called for all trade barriers to be lifted as soon as possible. Muchas gracias.

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As we welcome this momentum, WHO has again convened researchers and scientists from around the world to update the Research and Innovation Roadmap to take stock of what we’ve learned and identify the most pressing knowledge gaps.

From the outset of this pandemic, WHO’s R&D Blueprint for Epidemics played a facilitating and coordinating role, convening expert networks to drive progress across a range of thematic areas and connecting key funders to focus on identified research priorities.

In the past 18 months, major advances have been made in the understanding of modes of transmission, epidemiological trends, clinical management, development of point of care diagnostics, treatments and a large number of vaccines.

Social and behavioral scientists and ethics experts have also worked to ensure that research was up to the highest ethical standards.

The research forum is being Webcast live over two days and I challenged them to deliver complete solutions that take the development, evaluation and deployment of tools from their beginning to their end, prioritizing both equity and efficiency.

I urged them to expand collaboration between expert groups and partners and utilise global research capacity that has not yet been sufficiently leveraged, particularly in lower income countries.

And finally, I urged them to further promote large platform trials across the world.

This is the fastest way to prove the efficacy of new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

It’s amazing how far the world has come in less than 18 months, but I have high hopes that breakthrough innovation will continue at record pace.

===

Yesterday, I announced the winners of the second WHO Health for All Film Festival and I’ve been thinking since about the importance of telling stories to increase awareness, build solidarity and foster positive change.

I was struck by how each film winner creatively reflected new situations and different realities; highlighting challenges but also a way through.

Watching the news sometimes, it might seem that the world’s problems are intractable but I want you to know that WHO will keep fighting to defend the health rights of all people everywhere in the world.

The one thing they had in common was that to beat the challenges of our time, we must bridge our divides and craft new stories together.

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This week, Muslim brothers and sisters have been celebrating Eid al-Fitr and I want to end by wishing Eid Mubarak to everyone celebrating.

Stay safe and again, Eid Mubarak!

Christian, back to you.