Hit by Virus, UN Health Agency Offers Guarded Optimism on Vaccines

Dozens of staffers have been infected at the World Health Organization, based in the coronavirus hotspot of Geneva.

The World Health Organization logo is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

(CN) — Fighting a cluster of infections inside its Geneva headquarters, the World Health Organization on Monday welcomed announcements from vaccine makers saying their products appear to be highly efficient and safe but also warned against complacency.

The WHO issued its cautiously optimistic message about vaccines during a news briefing where much of the focus was on the agency itself. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that WHO staff were told by email that a few workers at its headquarters in Geneva tested positive, an embarrassment for the United Nations health agency offering guidance to the world on how not to get infected.

The agency acknowledged that in the past week five people at its headquarters tested positive and were in quarantine. It said that since the pandemic started, 36 people working at its headquarters had been found positive. But it called the recent cases the first infections that appeared to have taken place on its campus.

“All are doing well, all have mild disease or asymptomatic,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO lead expert on coronavirus. She said the agency was tracing down people who came into contact with those infected.

The WHO declined to say if top members were among those infected, citing privacy. The AP reported that one of the 65 total staffers infected was part of the top leadership team. Four of the five cases were on the same team, the AP reported, suggesting strict physical distancing and other measures may not have been followed. Geneva is a hot spot for the virus, recording among the highest infection rates in the world.

“We’re normal human beings. We do our grocery shopping, we have to take our kids to school, we are living in an area right now that has very high incidence surrounding us,” Van Kerkhove said. “So we, as individuals, also need to take into account the measures to keep ourselves safe. What we recommend to you and what you hear us saying every single day is what we say to our own staff, to our loved ones.”

About two weeks ago, the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, went into self-isolation and worked from home after he had contact with someone with Covid-19. On Monday, he appeared once again in person at the headquarters for the news briefing. When asked, he said he had not been tested for the virus because he felt fine and had no symptoms.

“I was OK, no symptoms. It’s day 17 now; I followed the protocols,” Tedros said. “Because of no symptoms and also the full follow-up of the protocol, I didn’t see the need for testing. I can assure you that I’m OK.”

The agency says it has taken extensive measures to keep the virus out of its headquarters, including physical distancing, the use of masks, providing good ventilation, keeping staff at home, limits on in-person meetings and the use of online platforms.

“We are human beings and we live within a society and we’re not entirely within a cocoon here,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of emergencies at WHO.

But the biggest developments are in the field of vaccines. Last week, Pfizer-BioNTech got the world excited by announcing that advanced clinical trials show their vaccine is about 90% effective at combating Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On Monday, Moderna, a U.S. pharmaceutical company, went one step better and said its vaccine is about 94.5% effective. Data for both vaccine trials need to be vetted by experts and regulatory agencies.

Tedros called it “encouraging news” that leaves the agency “cautiously optimistic about the potential for new tools to start to arrive.”

But he added: “This is not the time for complacency.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks to the media at WHO headquarters in February. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, File)

The WHO, and health experts around the world, are hopeful that effective and safe vaccines can bring the coronavirus under control and end a pandemic that has brought the world economy to its knees, overwhelmed health systems and strained societies and politics around the world. The virus has killed more than 1.3 million people globally and more than 50 million people have been found infected with it.

Vaccines cannot come soon enough. As the Northern Hemisphere heads into the colder months, the pandemic is accelerating in many countries. For example, there are reports of people being turned away from hospitals in Russia and grim stories are coming out from many other nations, including Italy, Iran and Mexico. In the past week, about 60,000 people died after contracting Covid-19 and about 4 million new infections were reported globally.

Nearly 10 months after the WHO declared the new coronavirus an international health emergency at the end of January, nations are eager to do mass vaccinations. China and Russia previously approved vaccines on an emergency basis and have begun injecting health workers and others deemed at high risk.

No vaccine has won approval from the WHO but several may be getting close to that important milestone.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said during Monday’s news briefing that the vaccine announcements were encouraging.

“Of course, we need to wait and see what the final efficacy and the safety profile will be,” she said.

She said the true value of the vaccines remains largely unknown.

“There are many, many questions remaining about the duration of protection, the impact on severe disease, the impact on vulnerable populations, especially the elderly, as well as the adverse events beyond a certain period of time,” she said.

She added experts will need to examine all the data on the vaccines and participants in the vaccine trials will need to be followed for at least two months to see if they suffer any side effects before the vaccines can be submitted to regulatory agencies for approval.

Once approved, there will be massive hurdles in getting vaccines distributed around the world. The WHO wants the most vulnerable people – health workers, the elderly and the sick – to get vaccinated first. It has established an initiative to help distribute vaccines to poorer countries. The WHO has raised about $5.1 billion toward this goal but says it still needs about $8.1 billion. There are concerns that most of the available doses of vaccines will be hoovered up by richer countries next year.

Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, said announcements about the vaccines should give people hope, but he said countries need to get “ready to deliver.”

“We are at that moment of great hope, but we need to hope with attitude,” he said. “We need to hope with determination, with planning, with investment, with financing, with implementation, with readiness.”


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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