(CN) — One year after it declared the novel coronavirus an international health emergency, the World Health Organization on Friday urged richer nations to not worsen the pandemic by hoarding and fighting over vaccines.
The United Nations' reprimand came at the end of a week that saw the European Union embroiled in a growing row over why it has fallen behind in the race to inoculate its populations. On Friday, besides approving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use, the EU said it would halt the company from exporting vaccine doses outside the bloc until it has met its supply obligations to the EU's 27 member states.
Around the world, countries are racing to secure vaccines, which are now seen as the only way out of a pandemic that registered its deadliest week yet since the new coronavirus was discovered circulating in central China. In the past week, 99,501 deaths were reported, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. The official death toll stands at more than 2.2 million.
A new hopeful trend is emerging too, though: The number of new confirmed infections continues to decline. Since a peak around Jan. 8, when more than 850,000 new infections were reported, about 590,000 confirmed cases were reported Thursday. In the past week, new cases have declined by 15%, the WHO said. The decline is the result of containment measures, such as lockdowns and bans on gatherings, in the Americas and Europe, the two regions hit the hardest by far.
But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said the world's richest countries may be on the verge of committing a grave mistake by not ensuring that vaccines are distributed around the world in a coordinated fashion where those who need them the most – health workers, the elderly and the sick – get them first.
“A year ago, I said the world had a window of opportunity to prevent widespread transmission of this new virus. Some countries heeded that call, some did not,” Tedros said, referring to his declaration on Jan. 30, 2020, that the novel coronavirus was an international public health emergency, the highest level of alert the Geneva-based health agency can issue.
The WHO's declaration of an international health emergency left most of the world unimpressed and many nations, most notably those in the Americas and Europe, took few steps to stop the virus. Most of Asia – spooked by previous virus outbreaks – took the new virus seriously and went into combat mode. A year later, the virus remains largely under control in Asia while it has devastated Europe and the Americas.
On March 11, slightly more than a month after making the Jan. 30 declaration, the virus was circulating out of control in Italy and this prompted the WHO to call the new disease a pandemic. Unlike the Jan. 30 declaration, the pandemic declaration sparked worldwide alarm and national lockdowns.
“Now vaccines are giving us another window of opportunity to bring the pandemic under control. We must not squander it,” Tedros said during a briefing at the WHO headquarters. “If we hoard vaccines and if we're not sharing, there will be three major problems: There will be a catastrophic moral failure; and two, it keeps the pandemic burning; and three, very slow global economic recovery...Is that what we want? So, it's our choice.”
Tedros called the hoarding of vaccines – “vaccine nationalism” – as serving self-defeating and short-sighted immediate political goals. Instead, the U.N. is calling on nations to combine forces and deliver 2 billion doses of vaccines to poorer countries by the end of the year. Tedros said he wants to see health workers and the vulnerable start to be vaccinated in every nation within the first 100 days of this year.
“When a village is on fire, it makes no sense for a small group of people to hold all the extinguishers to defend their own houses,” he said. “The fire will be put out faster if everyone has an extinguisher and works together in unison.”
So far, vaccinations are very uneven around the world. The U.S. has administered the most with more than 26 million doses and China has reported nearly 23 million vaccine shots. The U.K. and Israel are also well along in their efforts. Israel has the highest per capita rate of vaccinations in the world with 50 out of every 100 people having received a shot, according to Our World in Data, a research project affiliated with the University of Oxford.
And then there's the EU. It has come under huge pressure in recent days over the slow rollout of vaccines. Denmark has the highest vaccination rate in the bloc but only four out of every 100 people there have received a shot so far.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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