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WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 25 May 2020

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Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Today is Africa Day – an opportunity to celebrate Africa’s vitality and diversity, and to promote African unity.

Africa Day celebrates the birthday of the Organisation of African Unity, which was established on May 25th, 1963 – 57 years ago - and its successor organization is the African Union, which was established in 2002.

Today, on Africa Day 2020, we mark the successes and progress made throughout the African continent.

This year, celebrations are more muted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, although around half of the countries in the region have community transmission, concentrated mainly in major cities, Africa is the least-affected region globally in terms of the number of cases and deaths reported to WHO.

Africa has just 1.5 percent of the world’s reported cases of COVID-19, and less than 0.1 percent of the world’s deaths.

Of course, these numbers don’t paint the full picture.

Testing capacity in Africa is still being ramped up and there is a likelihood that some cases may be missed.

But even so, Africa appears to have so far been spared the scale of outbreaks we have seen in other regions.

The early set-up of a leaders coalition led by the African Union, under the chairmanship of President Ramaphosa of South Africa were key to rapidly accelerating preparedness efforts and issuing comprehensive control measures.

Countries across Africa have garnered a great deal of experience from tackling infectious diseases like polio, measles, Ebola, yellow fever, influenza and many more.

Africa’s knowledge and experience of suppressing infectious diseases has been critical to rapidly scaling up an agile response to COVID-19.

There has been solidarity across the continent. Labs in Senegal and South Africa were some of the first in the world to implement COVID-19 diagnostic testing.

And beyond that they worked together with Africa CDC and WHO to extend training for laboratory technicians for detection of COVID-19 and to build up the national capacity across the region.

Furthermore, health clinicians, scientists, researchers and academics from across Africa are collectively contributing to the worldwide understanding of COVID-19 disease.

For many years and from the outset of this pandemic, WHO has been working through our country offices to support nations in health emergency preparedness and developing comprehensive national action plans to prevent, detect and respond to the virus.

With WHO support, many African countries have made good progress in preparedness.

All countries in Africa now have a preparedness and response plan in place, compared with less than a dozen in the first few weeks of the pandemic.

48 countries in the region have a community engagement plan in place, compared with only 25 countries 10 weeks ago.

And 51 have lab-testing capacity for COVID-19, compared with 40 countries 10 weeks ago.

WHO continues to support Africa with other life-saving supplies.

As of last week, we have shipping millions of personal protective equipment and lab tests to 52 African countries.

In the coming weeks we plan further shipments of PPE, oxygen concentrators and lab tests.

However, we still see gaps and vulnerabilities. Only 19% of countries in the region have an infection prevention and control programme and standards for water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities.

And disruption to essential health services, such as vaccination campaigns and care for malaria, HIV and other diseases pose a huge risk.

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I now want to introduce my sister, Dr. Moeti, who is the Regional-Director of the AFRO region. Dr. Moeti, you have the floor.

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Thank you Dr. Moeti, I now want to introduce Professor Samba Sow, Director-General of the Center for Vaccine Development in Mali, former Minister of Health of Mali and a WHO Special Envoy with a particular focus on supporting West African communities and countries.

Thank you Professor Samba, I will now continue my remarks.

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As part of our continued response to the pandemic globally, WHO continues to work aggressively on research and development.

As you know, more than two months ago we initiated the Solidarity Trial, to evaluate the safety and efficacy of four drugs and drug combinations against COVID-19.

Over 400 hospitals in 35 countries are actively recruiting patients and nearly 3500 patients have been enrolled from 17 countries.

On Friday, the Lancet published an observational study on hydroxycholoroquine and chloroquine and its effects on COVID-19 patients that have been hospitalised.

The authors reported that among patients receiving the drug, when used alone or with a macrolide, they estimated a higher mortality rate. The Executive Group of the Solidarity Trial, representing 10 of the participating countries, met on Saturday and has agreed to review a comprehensive analysis and critical appraisal of all evidence available globally.

The review will consider data collected so far in the Solidarity Trial and in particular robust randomised available data, to adequately evaluate the potential benefits and harms from this drug.

The Executive Group has implemented a temporary pause of the hydroxychloroquine arm within the Solidarity Trial while the safety data is reviewed by the Data Safety Monitoring Board.

The other arms of the trial are continuing.

This concern relates to the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in COVID-19.

I wish to reiterate that these drugs are accepted as generally safe for use in patients with autoimmune diseases or malaria.

WHO will provide further updates as we know more.

And we will continue to work night and day for solutions, science and solidarity.

I thank you