(CN) — With the world rushing toward the emergency deployment of vaccines against the novel coronavirus, the head of the World Health Organization said Monday there's growing hope the end of the pandemic is in sight.
Monday started with a very promising vaccine announcement from AstraZeneca, a British pharmaceutical company, and the University of Oxford. They said advanced clinical trials show their vaccine is highly effective. More importantly, this vaccine would likely be much cheaper and easier to ship around the world than two other vaccine candidates announced in recent weeks that require very cold storage temperatures.
“With the latest positive news from vaccine trials, the light at the end of this long dark tunnel is growing brighter,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters. “There is now real hope that vaccines in combination with other tried and tested public health measures will help to end the pandemic.”
Promising clinical data from vaccine makers in the United States and Germany, along with Monday's announcement, is leading several nations to announce plans to start vaccinating as soon as December.
The distribution of vaccines can't come soon enough for a world overwhelmed by the pandemic, which has cast many parts of the world into their worst days yet. In November, the number of deaths and new infections has reached record highs with cases soaring in the Americas, Europe, Russia, India and Iran, among other parts of the world.
Globally, the death toll stands at about 1.4 million with more than 9,000 people dying a day on average. Last week saw four days with daily death tolls surpassing 11,000. Nearly 60 million infections have been detected globally and more than 580,000 new cases are detected each day on average, the highest number yet since the pandemic began in March.
So far, the WHO has not approved any vaccines for world distribution because the United Nations health agency hasn't examined the final clinical data and determined which vaccines are safe and effective.
But the agency appeared very optimistic about the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. Unlike vaccine candidates using novel techniques announced in recent days by U.S. pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, this vaccine is based on a more common vaccine method and doesn't require super-cold temperatures. As such, it would likely be cheaper to make and distribute to billions of people, WHO experts said.
“The advantage of this vaccine is that it can be stored in the ordinary refrigerated temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees and it's stable at that temperature,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO chief scientist, referring to Celsius temperatures. “That of course has huge logistical advantages for transporting and delivering this vaccine to cities and towns and villages and rural areas around the world.”
WHO Assistant Director-General Mariangela Simao said the agency is in talks with the AstraZeneca-Oxford team and will likely make an assessment by the beginning of next year about whether it should be approved for global use.
The AstraZeneca-Oxford team said their vaccine was proven to be effective in building up immunity to the coronavirus in up to about 90% of people jabbed with the vaccine. People participated in its vaccine trials in the United Kingdom and Brazil.
Swaminathan said the hope is that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine will be found safe and effective and that others like it will become available. China and Russia have developed vaccines too and they have begun vaccinating health workers and others with those products. The WHO has not approved the use of those vaccines.
“Remember, we have to cover a huge number of people, billions and billions of people. This is unprecedented and we will need all the manufacturing capacity in the world to be able to do that,” Swaminathan said.
Now that it appears coronavirus vaccines will become available, the WHO is calling on world leaders to help distribute them to every corner of the world to truly stamp out the virus and keep it from circulating and resurfacing.
“The significance of the scientific achievement cannot be overstated. No vaccines in history have been developed as rapidly as this,” Tedros said. “Now the international community must set a new standard for access.”
The WHO is seeking to raise about $28 billion to get vaccines distributed globally. Over the weekend, many leaders at a G20 meeting expressed willingness to help the initiative. President Donald Trump has refused to join it and he has pulled the United States out of the WHO. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to rejoin the WHO and help fund the global vaccine program.
There are concerns that richer countries will hoover up all the available vaccine doses and that poorer countries will be left behind further. Already, many of the richest countries have preordered millions of doses of the most promising vaccine candidates. Even in the richest countries, there are plans to vaccinate those deemed most vulnerable first, such as health workers, the elderly and those with health problems.
“The urgency with which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly,” Tedros said. “Every government rightly wants to do everything it can to protect its people, but there is now a real risk that the poorest and most vulnerable people will be trampled in the stampede for vaccines.”
The WHO has warned that unless the virus is eliminated everywhere it may bounce back even in places where the majority of people have been vaccinated or where the virus may appear to have disappeared.
“This isn't charity. It's the fastest and smartest way to end the pandemic and drive the global economic recovery,” Tedros said.
“I would argue that this is a no brainer for the world leaders,” said Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norway's foreign affairs minister, during the WHO briefing. He is leading fundraising efforts for the WHO initiative.
He said the sums the WHO is asking “sounds like a lot, but the total need is less than one-tenth of one percentage point of global GDP.”
“This is a small price to pay to get the world back on track,” he said. He said the economic damage of not getting vaccines distributed globally would far outweigh the cost of helping poorer countries vaccinate their populations.
Dr. Zweli Mkhize, South Africa's minister of health, added another reason for helping vaccinate the world population.
“Collective efforts to stamp out the virus now would also mean that future deadlier strains or mutations that are more difficult to treat could be avoided,” he said during the WHO briefing. He too is leading fundraising efforts. “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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