May 15 (UN News) – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday appealed for wealthier countries to delay vaccinating younger people against COVID-19 and instead donate doses to the COVAX global vaccine solidarity initiative.
Speaking during WHO’s bi-weekly media briefing, agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated his warning against “vaccine nationalism”, as low-income nations currently receive a paltry 0.3 per cent of supply.
“In a handful of rich countries, which bought up the majority of the vaccine supply, lower risk groups are now being vaccinated”, he said.
“I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents, but right now I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines to COVAX.”
Tedros reported that vaccine supply in low and lower-middle income countries has not been sufficient to even immunize health and care workers.
“Trickle down vaccination is not an effective strategy for fighting a deadly respiratory virus”, he said.
As of Friday, there were more than 160.8 million cases of COVID-19 globally.
The disease “has already cost more than 3.3 million lives and we’re on track for the second year of this pandemic to be far more deadly than the first”, Tedros told journalists.
India remains “hugely concerning”, he said, with several states continuing to see a worrying number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Egypt are also among countries that are dealing with spikes in cases and hospitalizations.
“Some countries in the Americas still have high numbers of cases and as a region, the Americas accounted for 40% of all COVID-19 deaths last week. There are also spikes in some countries in Africa.”
Tedros stressed that the only way out of the pandemic is through a combination of public health measures and vaccination, not one or the other.
While vaccine supply remains a key challenge, he pointed to new developments this week to address surrounding issues.
Several countries have announced they will share vaccines with COVAX. Other measures include new deals on tech transfers to scale-up vaccine production, and calls by world leaders to lift trade barriers.
With some authorities, including in the United States, lifting policies on wearing masks in public, WHO continues to recommend their use as part of a comprehensive strategy for controlling coronavirus spread.
Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19, explained that mask mandates depend on key factors, principally the intensity of virus transmission in any given area.
“It’s about how much virus is circulating around in a country. It’s about the amount of vaccines and vaccinations that are rolling out. It’s about variants of interest, the variants of concern, that are circulating,” she said, responding to a journalist’s question on the updated guidance in the US, issued on Thursday.
“We have to keep all of this in mind when thinking about how to adjust the policies associated with the use of masks.”
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director, echoed her statement, adding that “even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you have got a lot of transmission then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”
While high vaccination coverage should also mean low community transmission of the virus, he said “we are at a point where many countries are facing a situation where the transmission hasn’t completely ended, and people aren’t completely vaccinated.”
Dr. Ryan said as long as authorities sustain public health measures as they work to increase vaccination, “countries will be in a much stronger position when they do get to high vaccine coverage levels to start saying to people ‘You don’t have to wear a mask anymore.’”