(CN) — Two days after the United Kingdom became the first Western nation to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, the World Health Organization on Friday welcomed the news but warned that difficult months lie ahead.
“This is an important scientific step for the world as vaccines will be critical in the battle against Covid-19,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the United Nations health agency’s director-general, during a news briefing.
“Progress on vaccines gives us all a lift and we can now start to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “However, WHO is concerned that there is a growing perception that the pandemic is over.”
He added: “Even as vaccines are rolled out, people will need to keep adhering to public health measures so that everyone is protected. The pandemic still has a long way to run.”
Nearly 10 months after the WHO declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, the world is in the midst of a second wave of infection and death that is worse than the first wave in the spring.
Globally, more than 10,000 people are dying a day from Covid-19, as the disease caused by the coronavirus is called. The death toll surpassed 1.5 million this week and many countries are struggling to bring transmission of the virus under control. New outbreaks in Japan and South Korea are adding to concerns.
The United States, the nation hit the hardest by the pandemic, registered record levels of new cases and deaths this week. On Thursday, the U.S. reported 2,918 new deaths in a single day, the most yet.
In Europe, Italy has once again become the nation suffering the most. On Thursday, it recorded 993 new deaths in a single day, a new grim record. On the bright side, new cases have been declining in Italy since a peak in the middle of November.
Countries around the world are racing to prepare to vaccinate their populations with health care workers, the elderly and people with health problems getting placed at the head of the line because they are at the highest risk from the virus.
The U.K. made headlines this week after it gave emergency approval to a vaccine produced by the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and BioNTech, a Germany company. The vaccine is based on a relatively new technique that uses specially coded RNA molecules to tell human cells to fight off the protein spike that the coronavirus uses to invade a person’s cells. The vaccine requires ultra-cold temperatures and that will make its distribution more costly and difficult. Such vaccines likely may not be distributed to many parts of the world where ultra-cold storage may be impossible.
After the U.K., Bahrain too approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use. Last month, Bahrain authorized the use of a Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm, for frontline workers. Other countries are expected to approve the use of vaccines in the coming weeks, including the U.S. and the European Union. The WHO has not yet approved a vaccine for worldwide distribution.
China and Russia, meanwhile, approved vaccines for public use in August. China has pushed ahead with mass vaccinations and Russia plans to vaccinate 2 million people this month, starting next week. Both are offering their vaccines to nations around the world in what has become a race between superpowers.
Each nation around the planet is developing its own vaccination plans and securing deals with manufacturers. Meanwhile, 189 countries have joined a WHO initiative to distribute vaccines globally. A major fear is that poorer countries will be left behind in the rush to inoculate populations. Through its initiative, the WHO hopes to get 20% of the world’s 7.8 billion people vaccinated by the end of 2021.
What is clear is that there won’t be enough vaccine doses for everyone who wants them next year and that will present many new vexing problems. For example, debates are growing over how to treat unvaccinated people when they travel and go to workplaces. The shortage of vaccine doses also likely will force nations to continue imposing restrictions or face seeing an explosion of infections, WHO experts said.
“It’s extremely important people have patience,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, the WHO director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals. She said it is crucial that people “don’t feel vaccines are going to be some sort of a turn of the switch and then we’re completely over this; people need to get vaccinated and that’s going to take some time.”
Besides the logistical challenges of manufacturing and distributing vaccines, WHO experts said being honest and clear with people hesitant about the vaccines will be key. Tedros praised the announcement by the former U.S. presidents who pledged to take the vaccine when it is ready on live television. On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden said he’d volunteer to get jabbed too.
“They are influencers and many of those who follow them can be influenced and it’s a good idea. I support their offer,” Tedros said.
Similarly, leaders around the world are stepping up to say they will take the vaccine. In France, Bruno Le Maire, the popular finance minister, said he wanted to get vaccinated when he could and on Friday Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he’d get inoculated to set an example.
Tedros said he would gladly get injected with a vaccine, but he added that he would “need to make sure that it’s my turn because I don’t want to take anybody’s vaccine.”
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, said that while not everyone will be able to get a vaccine in the next year, the distribution of vaccines to those most at risk will “take a lot of the sorrow out of this pandemic.”
Even as vaccines are distributed to the most vulnerable, the virus will continue circulating and infecting those not vaccinated, he said. “So the chance of transmission jumping back up again will always be there.”
He warned that unless nations and people continue taking precautions the virus “will blow out of control” and leave countries facing the risk of seeing “epidemic yo-yo situations through 2021.”
Still, he said the arrival of vaccines should give people hope.
“I have seen vaccines transform the world and change the course of epidemics,” Ryan said. “And I fully expect that these vaccines and the ones that are to come will do that.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.