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WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the Member States information session on COVID-19 - 8 April 2021

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Honourable Ministers, Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

Thank you for joining us once again for today’s weekly briefing.

As you know, yesterday was World Health Day, and our theme this year was health inequity.

Addressing inequalities has been central to WHO’s mission and mandate since our constitution came into force 73 years ago.

The constitution says that unequal development in different countries in the promotion of health and control of disease, especially communicable disease, is a common danger.

How relevant those words are still.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, exploited and exacerbated inequalities between and within countries.

While the pandemic has affected all of us, the poorest and most marginalized have been hit hardest - both in terms of lives and livelihoods lost.

The impact of the pandemic pushed an estimated 120 million people into extreme poverty last year.

Gender inequalities have significantly increased, with more women than men leaving the labour force.

And as we speak, rich countries are vaccinating their populations while the world’s poor watch and wait.

These health inequities are not just unfair, they make the world less safe.

So, as countries respond, recover and rebuild, and in the spirit of World Health Day, we are calling on governments to address the inequities that make all of us more vulnerable, in five areas:

First, invest in equitable production and distribution of COVID-19 rapid tests, oxygen, treatments and safe and effective vaccines between and within countries.

Second, strengthen health information systems and invest in better data to shine a light on inequities, and who is being left behind;

Third, protect and prioritize health in budgets, including in stimulus spending and longer-term recovery plans;

Fourth, deliver equitable access to services and infrastructure to ensure safe, healthy and inclusive neighbourhoods in both urban and rural areas;

And fifth, strengthen primary health care as the foundation of universal health coverage.

Some of these are investments that will reduce inequities in the long term; others can make a difference right now – like investing in vaccine equity.

At the start of the year, I made a call for every country to start vaccinating health workers and older people in the first 100 days of 2021.

This Saturday will mark day 100. So far, 193 out of 218 countries and economies have now started vaccination – or 167 WHO Member States.

Of the 25 economies that have not yet started vaccination, 18 are low- or middle-income.

COVAX has delivered more than 38 million doses to 100 countries and economies.

More than 690 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 85% have gone to high- or upper middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.2%.

It is a travesty that in some countries health workers and at-risk groups remain completely unvaccinated.

Vaccination, in combination with proven public health measures, is the fastest way to end the acute stage of this pandemic for all of us.

These imbalances in vaccine distribution are especially troubling given the wide circulation of viral variants.

The longer the virus circulates, the greater the chance a dangerous mutation will arise that could set us back even further.

The effort to achieve vaccine equity will not stop and cannot stop.

I will continue to call on Member States to share vaccine doses and fill the US$ 22.1 billion gap in the ACT Accelerator for the equitable distribution of vaccines, rapid tests and therapeutics.

We will also look to find new ways to work with manufacturers to boost overall vaccine production.

At the same time, we continue to keep a very close eye on vaccine safety.

As you know, the European Medicines Agency and the Medicines and other Health Products Agency from the UK said yesterday that unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be listed as very rare side effects of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The COVID-19 subcommittee of the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety has reviewed available information from Europe and other regions and has said that a causal relationship between the vaccine and the occurrence of blood clots with low platelets is plausible but not confirmed.

WHO, EMA and MHRA continue to recommend that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risk of these very rare side effects.

Dr Mariângela Simão will present more information in a few minutes.

Excellencies, as always we are grateful for your support.

We look forward to your questions and comments.

I thank you.