A year ago, on 30 January, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern – the highest level of alarm at our disposal under international law.
At the time there were 98 confirmed cases and no deaths reported outside China. The WHO repeatedly urged all countries to capitalise on the “window of opportunity” to prevent widespread transmission of this new virus.
Some countries heeded these and earlier warnings and did well. Others did not. This is borne out by the tragic milestones the world has since passed, including the deaths of more than 2 million people and more than 100m confirmed cases.
This pain has scarred our communities and collective consciousness. The suffering felt by those with long Covid, many whom I have come to know well, is heartbreaking.
In the outbreak’s first two weeks, WHO issued wide-ranging guidance to stem the spread, care for patients and equip health workers. The WHO helped scientists publish the first PCR tests days after Chinese scientists shared the genetic sequence of the virus. This led to the rapid development and rollout of tests and the promise offered today by the lifesaving potential of vaccines.
All at-risk people in all countries need access to vaccines – not all people in some countries
This new window of opportunity must be grasped with both hands. We must prioritise equity. All at-risk people in all countries, especially health workers, older people and those with underlying conditions, need access to vaccines – not all people in some countries.
Vaccines have been administered in more than 50 countries so far. Not surprisingly, it is the poorer countries that have been unable to start rolling out vaccines.
Rich nations have made bilateral deals with manufacturers to vaccinate entire populations, sometimes several times over. This has left countries under huge domestic pressure to start immunising their populations little choice but to make their own arrangements.
This has resulted in manufacturers prioritising more profitable deals with rich countries, rather than support equitable rollout of vaccines to all countries.
Calls for equity must be backed by action. This means greater investment in the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a global initiative launched in April to spur the development and distribution of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, with an end game in sight for this pandemic.
There has been overwhelming global backing for the ACT-Accelerator and its vaccines pillar, Covax, which has been endorsed by 190 countries and economies. But the ACT-Accelerator has a $27bn (£19bn) financing gap for 2021. This is a fraction of the projected global economic cost of up to $9.2tn if governments do not ensure developing economies have equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.
To stay ahead of the virus, we must prioritise science, especially as we see new variants emerge. To address this, we cannot let up on testing, even as the virus is spreading far and wide. Governments must increase genomic sequencing capacities, which are not available widely enough, leaving many countries unaware of mutations of the virus.
But I am encouraged by many signs of progress. Covax, so far, has agreements in place to access at least 2bn doses of several promising vaccine candidates. Pfizer has committed up to 40m doses of vaccines for Covax. We are confident that other vaccines will be approved and rolled out in the coming weeks.
I also recognise the support governments have shown for protecting their health workers. In line with this, the WHO is calling on the world to ensure the vaccination of health workers and older people is under way in all countries within the first 100 days of 2021.
If we succeed, we will be on track to bring the pandemic under control, and by this time next January, we will find all countries and communities of the world on a healthier, safer and more sustainable path for the future.