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WHO Director-General's opening remarks at Building Resilience Through Innovation in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in LDCs Islamic Development Bank

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Your Excellency Dr Muhammad Sulaiman Al Jasser,

Dr Hayat Sindi,

Excellencies, dear panel members,

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening to all of you, and thank you so much for the invitation to share a few reflections with you today.

I want to start by congratulating my brother, Dr Al Jasser, on his election as President of the Islamic Development Bank. I look forward to working with you, and with all Ministers of Finance in Islamic Development Bank countries, to respond, restore and restart.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis that has taken a terrible toll on individuals, families, communities, and economies.

In some public discourse, the response to the pandemic has been framed as a choice between lives and livelihoods; between health and the economy.

But this is a false choice. The pandemic is a devastating demonstration that health and the economy are intimately integrated and inter-dependent.

When health is at risk, everything is at risk. But when health is protected and promoted, individuals, families, communities, economies and nations can flourish.

The only way to solve the economic crisis is to first solve the public health crisis.

One of the key lessons of the pandemic is that health is not a luxury item, or simply of on outcome of development; it is the foundation of social, economic and political stability.

WHO remains committed to working with the Islamic Development Bank and its 57 member countries to strengthen health systems, based on a strong foundation of primary health care in order to narrow the gap, or as the IsDB President said, the divide.

Our teams have been working closely for several months on developing a Strategic Framework Agreement, which we expect to sign in the near future.

This agreement will support our joint efforts to strengthen health systems, accelerate cancer prevention and control, improve maternal, newborn and child health, strengthen emergency preparedness capacities, respond to the threat of antimicrobial resistance, and more.

Our two organizations will also work closely together to scale innovations with high impact, including through the IsDB Transform Fund.

I know we have already started to work on scaling innovations in women’s cancers, and we see potential to expand into other areas including mental health, noncommunicable diseases, and the use of genomics for outbreak surveillance, and the prevention and treatment of many diseases.

Throughout history, innovation has been a major driver of improvements in health, and it remains an essential part of WHO’s strategy.

Innovation is most powerful when it helps to reduce the inequalities in our world, instead of becoming another reason people are left behind.

We must be guided by what people need, not seduced by every new gadget.

That’s why WHO’s approach is to identify innovations with the greatest potential for the greatest impact, based on the needs and priorities of countries.

Let me describe three areas in which we believe investment in innovation could make a huge contribution to strengthening resilience globally.

First, vaccine manufacturing.

More than five billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have now been administered globally, and yet we face an enormous vaccine injustice.

In low-income countries, less than 2% of adults are fully vaccinated, compared with almost 50% in high‑income countries.

WHO has taken several innovative steps to address vaccine equity.

Last year, we established the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, including the COVAX vaccines facility, to speed up the development and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

We also established the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, as a mechanism for sharing transparent and non-exclusive voluntary licenses.

Most recently, we have established a technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines in South Africa.

But for the long term, we need sustainable local vaccine production in every region, to break the dependence on imports and strengthen regional health security.

Investing in local production of vaccines and other medical technologies is essential not only for pandemic preparedness and response, but also for a reliable supply of safe, effective locally-produced medicines, and for the economic benefits it brings.

Second, primary health care.

Pandemic response, recovery and resilience require strong primary health care.

And innovation is always important for expanding the geographical reach of primary health care, and the range and quality of services offered.

For example, in Somalia WHO has begun to scale a solar powered oxygen innovation, which is already saving lives — of patients with COVID-19, trauma patients, and children with pneumonia.

Digital technologies offer many new opportunities to reach more people with primary health care services.

For example, telemedicine and mobile health are helping us to deliver care in people’s homes, instead of in hospitals and clinics.

Investing in primary health care, and in innovations that allow more people to access it, offers huge benefits for safeguarding health – not just from the effects of epidemics and pandemics, but also from the impact of communicable and non-communicable diseases.

I therefore welcome the Islamic Development Bank’s innovation challenge on accelerating impact in primary health care through digitalization, and we look forward to supporting it, and to seeing the most mature solutions brought to scale for the greatest needs and the greatest impact.

Third, innovative finance.

As you know, there have been several reviews of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many recommendations about how to prevent a future disaster on this scale.

One theme that is common to all of reviews is the need for better financing for national and global preparedness and response.

There’s no doubt that strengthening resilience, especially in low-income countries, will take significant investment.

In our view, it’s vital that any financing facilities are built on the foundation of existing financial institutions, rather than creating new ones that would further fragment the global health architecture.

That includes the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional and multilateral institutions including the Islamic Development Bank, who have the ability to mobilize resources both globally and domestically.

So we would welcome the Islamic Development Bank’s commitment to investing in strengthening pandemic preparedness and response.

With the UN General Assembly in September, the G20 Summit in October and the Special Session of the World Health Assembly in November, the next three months will be a critical period for shaping the governance and finance of pandemic preparedness and response.

Whatever structures and mechanisms emerge, WHO believes these must be grounded in several core principles:

engagement and ownership of all countries;

alignment with the constitutional mandate of WHO, rather than creating parallel structures;

involvement of partners from across the One Health spectrum, civil society and the private sector; faith-based organizations and so on,

coherence with the International Health Regulations; and accountability.

Thank you once again, Dr Al Jasser, and thank you, your Excellencies for your support and commitment.

At no time in human history is the relationship between health and finance more vital — or the need for our partnership greater.

I remind you of my three requests, where I truly believe could make a difference:

Invest in local production.

Invest in primary health care as a foundation of universal health coverage.

And invest in pandemic and preparedness and response, nationally and globally.

We must seize the moment. If the world continues down the same path, it will continue to get the same result, which is a world that is less healthy, less safe and less fair.

Now is the time for new ideas, and for working together in solidarity to build a future that is healthier, safer and fairer for everyone, everywhere.

Shukran. I thank you.