UN launches global push to accelerate work on COVID-19 treatments

World leaders have pledged to accelerate work on tests, drugs and vaccines for COVID-19 and to share them around the globe, but the United States did not take part in the launch of the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa were among those who joined a video conference on Friday to launch what the WHO had billed a “landmark collaboration” to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The aim is to accelerate the development of safe and effective drugs, tests and vaccines to prevent, diagnose and treat COVID-19, the lung disease caused by the novel coronavirus – and to ensure equal access to treatments for rich and poor.

“We are facing a common threat which we can only defeat with a common approach,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“Experience has told us that even when tools are available they have not been equally available to all. We cannot allow that to happen.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the objective at a global pledging effort in early May would be to raise 7.5 billion euros ($8.1bn) to ramp up work on prevention, diagnostics and treatment.

“This is a first step only, but more will be needed in the future,” von der Leyen told the conference.

Macron said: “We will continue now to mobilise all G7 and G20 countries so they get behind this initiative. And I hope we’ll manage to reconcile around this joint initiative both China and the US, because this is about saying: the fight against COVID-19 is a common human good and there should be no division in order to win this battle.”

Ramaphosa, who is also the current chairman of the African Union, warned that the continent – with its generally poor standards of healthcare – was “extremely vulnerable to the ravages of this virus and is in need of support”.

‘US not involved’

Leaders from Asia, the Middle East and the Americas also joined the video conference, but a spokesman for the US mission in Geneva had earlier told the Reuters News Agency the US would not be involved.

“There will be no US official participation,” he said in an email reply to a query. “We look forward to learning more about this initiative in support of international cooperation to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as possible.”

US President Donald Trump has lambasted the WHO’s response to the pandemic and announced a suspension of funding.

Tedros has steadfastly defended the WHO’s handling of the pandemic and repeatedly committed to conducting a post-pandemic evaluation, as the agency does with all crises.

Reporting from the United Nations, Al Jazeera’s James Bays said the US has in the past taken the lead at times of global crisis but that this time was different.

“The US has boxed itself into a corner as Trump blamed the WHO, which coordinates the global coronavirus response, for siding with China and not calling [out] China’s role in the spread of pandemic. This means that Washington cannot back this effort.”

Potential vaccines

More than 2.7 million people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 190,000 have died since the virus was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, according to the Johns Hopkins University.

More than 100 potential COVID-19 vaccines are being developed, including six already in clinical trials, said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI vaccine alliance, a public-private partnership that leads immunisation campaigns in poor countries.

“We need to ensure that there are enough vaccines for everyone, we are going to need global leadership to identify and prioritise vaccine candidates,” he told a separate Geneva news briefing before taking part in the formal WHO announcement.

Global manufacturing capacity must be ramped up ahead of choosing “a winner” vaccine, Berkley said, noting that GAVI and the World Bank were looking at the issue.

“We can’t have a repeat of what happened in 2009 – the H1N1 vaccine, when there was not enough supply for developing countries or when supply did come it came much later.”

Another important question was how well a vaccine would work in people most at risk from COVID-19, Berkley said.

“How well do they work in the elderly, are they single or multiple dose etc?” he said, noting that older people had weaker immune systems.

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