The World Health Organization says the coronavirus pandemic is far from over and there is a desperate need for more vaccine doses globally.
(CN) — With the coronavirus pandemic in the midst of a new deadly wave, the World Health Organization on Friday praised the United States for supporting a waiver on vaccine patents and approved the use of a Chinese vaccine, important steps in efforts to expand global vaccination.
The United Nations health agency warned the world is at a dangerous point in a pandemic that is far from over with about 90,240 deaths reported in the past week and more than 5.7 million new cases, the highest level yet.
“The number of cases, the number of deaths globally is on the increase,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, at a news briefing at his agency’s Geneva headquarters.
He urged world leaders to do more to boost vaccine production and distribution. Since the virus spiralled out of control in India in recent weeks, richer nations are coming under ever more pressure to back a global vaccine drive.
On Thursday, the White House said it backed a temporary waiver on vaccine patents to boost global production, a step Tedros has pleaded for. The World Trade Organization is in discussions over the lifting patent protections for vaccines.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the White House’s support for a waiver, saying “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.”
“It is a significant statement of solidarity and support for vaccine equity,” Tedros said. “I know that this is not a politically easy thing to do, so I very much appreciate the leadership of the United States and we urge other countries to follow their example.”
Still, lifting patent protection may prove difficult. After the U.S. announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was opposed to it, arguing that patent protections are not the primary problem in boosting vaccine production.
The European Union is a major vaccine maker and while it may be skeptical about a waiver, it has distributed massive amounts of vaccines to other parts of the world, contrary to the U.S. The EU has exported more than 200 million doses while the U.S. has exported about 2.5 million doses.
On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron echoed Merkel’s concerns and criticized the U.S. and the United Kingdom for keeping their vaccine stockpiles for their domestic use. EU leaders were heavily criticized for falling behind the U.S. and U.K. in vaccination, though Europe is now catching up and pointing out that it was exporting vaccines to other countries.
“What is the current issue?” Macron said, speaking with reporters. “It is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow? The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses.”
“Today, the Anglo-Saxons block many of these ingredients and vaccines,” he added. “Today, 100% of the vaccines produced in the United States are for the American market.”
Drug companies are opposed to the vaccine waiver and say it will hurt innovation. But a majority of countries, led by South Africa and India, say a waiver will speed up vaccine production.
Tedros said the world can only end the pandemic by getting vaccines distributed globally.
“More than a billion vaccine doses have already been distributed,” Tedros said. “But more than 80% of it is in high-income countries while the low-income countries received 0.3%. This is unacceptable. This kind of divide is unacceptable.”
He added, “We repeat like a broken record: Vaccine equity is not charity, vaccine equity is actually in the interest of everybody and it’s the most important element in defeating this virus.”
Tedros said the world is facing a “chronic vaccine crisis.”
The WHO took a step toward solving that crisis on Friday when its experts approved for emergency use the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, the first vaccine not made in a Western country to get the green light. WHO experts are reviewing the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine and another Chinese vaccine, the Sinovac product.
The agency said the Sinopharm vaccine will help boost supply to poorer countries. The vaccine was produced by the Beijing Bio-Institute of Biological Products, a subsidiary of China National Biotec Group.
Despite the WHO approval, there are doubts over the vaccine’s efficacy and questions over a lack of data provided by Beijing Bio-Institute of Biological Products. The company says the vaccine is about 79% effective against the virus, though the WHO said efficacy for adults over 60 is uncertain because few older adults took part in clinical trials.
The Chinese vaccine requires two doses for full effect and relies on a traditional method. An advantage is that it does not need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures, making it easier to distribute in many parts of the world. It is already being administered in many countries.
On Friday, the WHO’s experts gave a grim assessment of the state of the pandemic even as it recedes in places such as the U.S. and the U.K., where vaccination rates are high. On Friday, the British government listed countries where people can travel for summer holidays, bringing a sense of normalcy back.
“The number of deaths being reported around the world is really shocking this late in a pandemic when we have the tools in hand that can prevent infections,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, said too many people and governments are failing to take the steps needed to keep the virus in check. He said people continue to mix too much at homes and other indoor places without taking proper precautions, such as wearing masks and washing hands. He said new strains are part of the problem, but that doesn’t fully explain why the virus continues to spread so fast.
“This virus has huge kinetic energy in some countries. It’s got a massive force of infection and we’ve got to slow that down,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to get our foot off the virus accelerators and get our foot on the solutions accelerators.”
He warned that the pandemic may take off in other countries unless the virus is reined in.
“We’ve seen the tragedy in India,” he said. “We need to avoid that same tragedy occurring in other countries and some other countries are heading in that direction.”
With the global shortage in vaccines, Ryan said jabs cannot be relied on to end the pandemic for now.
“At this point, many of us may have expected we’d be coming out of this pandemic, we’d be thinking about the future. We’re not,” he said. “We’re still in the heart of this thing.”
Asked when the pandemic may end, he said there was no telling.
“Unfortunately, we cannot predict that date,” he said. “If we had a lot more vaccine and a whole lot more arms we’d be a hell of a lot closer.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.