New York: The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) told health ministers on Sunday that although reported COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined significantly, it is not time yet for any country to lower its guard.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered his message during the opening of the annual World Health Assembly - the decision-making body of WHO comprised of representatives of 194 countries.
Noting that it was the first time since 2019 that the Assembly could take place in-person, he asked ministers where the world stood, two years into the most severe health crisis in a century.
“So, is it COVID-19 over? No, it’s most certainly not over. I know that’s not the message you want to hear, and it’s definitely not the message I want to deliver”, he highlighted.
He added that although in many countries all restrictions have been lifted and life looks much like it did before the pandemic, reported cases are increasing in almost 70 countries in all regions.
"And this in a world in which testing rates have plummeted”, he added.
Tedros warned that reported deaths are also rising in Africa, the continent with the lowest vaccination coverage.
“This virus has surprised us at every turn – a storm that has torn through communities again and again, and we still can’t predict its path, or its intensity”, he emphasised.
Global gaps in COVID-19 response
While agreeing that progress has been made, with 60% of the world’s population already vaccinated, Tedros reminded that almost one billion people in lower-income countries remain unvaccinated.
“It’s not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere…Only 57 countries have vaccinated 70% of their population – almost all of them high-income countries”, he noted.
The WHO chief also warned that increasing transmission means more deaths and more risk of a new variant emerging, and the current decline of testing and sequencing means “we are blinding ourselves to the evolution of the virus”.
He pointed out as well that in some countries there is still insufficient political commitment to roll out vaccines, and there are still gaps in operational and financial capacity.
“And in all, we see vaccine hesitancy driven by misinformation and disinformation”, he added.
It is possible to end the pandemic
Tedros said that WHO’s primary focus now is to support countries to turn vaccines into vaccinations as fast as possible, but they are still seeing supply-side problems for tests and therapeutics with insufficient funds and access.
“The pandemic will not magically disappear. But we can end it. We have the knowledge. We have the tools. Science has given us the upper hand”, he said, calling on countries to work together to reach 70% of vaccination coverage.
The Seventy-fifth World Health Assembly is being held in Geneva, Switzerland, on 22-28 May 2022. It is the first in-person Health Assembly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the meeting, country delegates make decisions on health goals and strategies that will guide public health work and the work of the WHO Secretariat to move the world towards better health and well-being for all.
The theme of this year’s Assembly is Health for peace, peace for health.
“As we speak, our colleagues around the world are responding to outbreaks of Ebola in DRC, monkeypox and hepatitis of unknown cause, and complex humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine and Yemen.
We face a formidable convergence of disease, drought, famine and war, fuelled by climate change, inequity and geopolitical rivalry”, Tedros told Ministers.
Global Health Leaders Awards
The WHO Director-General also announced on Sunday six awards to recognize outstanding contribution to advancing global health, demonstrated leadership and commitment to regional health issues.
The winners include British-Lebanese psychiatrist Dr Ahmed Hankir, youth sports advocate Ms Ludmila Sofia Oliveira Varela, and polio workers in Afghanistan.