Testing will still be a critical tool against COVID-19, even as vaccines are deployed against the disease, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday during his regular briefing on the crisis.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus emphasized how testing has been common among countries which have worked to control the virus.
“As vaccines are rolled out, testing will continue to play a vital role”, he said.
“Initially, health workers, older people and other at-risk groups will be prioritised for vaccination. That will still leave the virus with a lot of room to move, and testing will remain a vital tool for controlling the pandemic.”
However, Tedros stressed that though vital, testing is only part of the strategy against COVID-19.
“Testing is the spotlight that shows where the virus is. Investments in testing must be matched by investments in isolation facilities, clinical care, protecting health workers, contact tracing, cluster investigation and supported quarantine”, he stated.
More evaluation needed
Meanwhile, WHO said more information is needed concerning the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
The partners announced this week that clinical trials showed a regimen consisting of one half-dose of the vaccine, followed by a full dose a month later, was more effective than two full doses.
Dr. Katherine O’Brien, Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO, underlined the need for further evaluation as the data were reported in a press release.
“I think what we can emphasize, though, is that from what we understand about the press release, there is certainly something interesting that has been observed. But there are many reasons that could underlie the differences that were observed,” she said.
WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminatha, pointed out that less than 3,000 people were given the lower-dose regimen, according to the press release, all of whom were 55 years old or younger.
She added that the other group consisted of more than 8,000 people of varying ages, thus making it very hard to compare the two, while overall, their numbers were too small to come to any definitive conclusions.
“It would be speculation at this point,” Dr. Swaminathan told reporters.
She said AstraZeneca has informed WHO that it intends to run a full trial of the lower-dose regimen.
Lessons from Ebola
Global experience with storage and distribution of the Ebola vaccine could inform delivery of any potential inoculation against COVID-19 once developed, according to WHO.
“There is demonstrated experience of delivering ultra-cold chain vaccines, even in some of the most difficult and remote areas,” said Dr. O’Brien. “But that has also taken enormous resources to do that.”
The WHO official was responding to a journalist’s question concerning the experimental vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, which was recently submitted to authorities in the United States for emergency approval.
The vaccine, which has shown a more than 90 per cent efficacy rate, requires very cold storage of -70 degrees Celsius or below, prompting concerns about potential distribution in African countries.
No one vaccine is enough
“We do have experience in a number of countries, specifically in Africa, being able to deploy a vaccine with that ultra-cold chain requirement”, said Dr. O’Brien, referring to the Merck Ebola vaccine used in outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“So, as we anticipate the use of the Pfizer vaccine, the intention is certainly to be able to use it along with other vaccines because no one vaccine is going to have adequate supply, nor will any one vaccine necessarily have suitable operational characteristics to meet all of the needs.”
Dr. O’Brien added that Pfizer has developed a special “shipper” which can maintain the vaccine’s temperature for up to 10 to 15 days.
Furthermore, the vaccine can be stored at refrigerated temperatures for five days, she continued, while portable freezers that do not run on electricity, and even dry ice, also can be used.
Innovate for delivery
As ultra-cold chain logistics are not in place everywhere, including in high-income nations, Dr. O’Brien suggested that countries will have to “innovate” around systems for delivering COVID-19 vaccines that have this requirement.
One approach could be to use them for immunizing certain segments of the population.
She cited health professionals as an example, because they work in facilities where immunization would take place and where it would be easier to install the ultra-cold chain freezers.
Move your body
Although the pandemic has imposed many restrictions on our lives, there is no excuse to sit on the couch, WHO affirmed on Friday, announcing new guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour, published this week.
Exercise is essential for physical and mental health throughout life, the agency said, but one in four adults, and four in five adolescents, do not move enough.
The guidelines recommend between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week for adults, and an average of 60 minutes per day for children and adolescents.
Stockholm+50: Accelerate action towards a healthy and prosperous planet for all
The United Nations General Assembly agreed on the way forward for plans to host an international meeting at the highest possible level in Stockholm next June, during the week of World Environment Day. The event will commemorate the 50 years since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and serve as a contribution to accelerate action towards a more sustainable society.
The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was made in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden, resulting in what is often seen as the the first step toward the development of international environmental law, recognizing the importance of a healthy environment for people, and creating the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Five decades after the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the Government of Sweden, with support from the Government of Kenya, will host Stockholm+50, an international meeting in 2022 to commemorate the 50 years since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and its outcome documents, as a contribution to the environmental dimension of sustainable development to accelerate the implementation of commitments in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development, including a sustainable recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
The international meeting, “Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity”, will take place in Stockholm on 2 and 3 June 2022, following a UN General Assembly resolution. In three leadership dialogues, the meeting will reflect on the urgent need for actions towards a healthy planet and prosperity of all, achieving a sustainable and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and accelerating the implementation of the environmental dimension of Sustainable Development in the context of the Decade of Action. The meeting will also reinforce the messages and the outcomes of the event to commemorate UNEP’s 50th anniversary (UNEP@50), which will have taken place in March 2022, in Nairobi.
Per Bolund, Sweden’s Minister for the Environment and Climate, and Deputy Prime Minister, said “Our aim is clear, we want Stockholm+50 to make a concrete contribution to accelerating the transformation to a sustainable future. We call this meeting to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1972 conference. We are running out of time and urgent action is needed. These challenges are global, and we must meet them with a global response that drives action on the ground.”
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, who was on 11 October appointed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as the Secretary-General of the Stockholm+50 international meeting, said: “We need to urgently work to transform our economies and societies, but our branches will spread only as far as our roots are deep. By remembering Stockholm at 50, we also remember how the world came together to heal the ozone layer in 2013, phase out leaded fuel this year and stop endangered species from going extinct. By convening in Stockholm, we also recommit to human and planetary health, responsibility, prosperity, equality and peace – as we have seen only too clearly in COVID-19.”
COVID-19 deaths at lowest level in nearly a year
Although COVID-19 deaths continue to decline, vaccine inequity persists, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday, again calling for greater support for developing countries.
Agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reported that the death toll from the disease is now at its lowest level in almost a year.
“Deaths are declining in every region except Europe, where several countries are facing fresh waves of cases and deaths. And of course, deaths are highest in the countries and populations with the least access to vaccines.”
Tedros appealed for global cooperation. “Countries that continue to roll out boosters now are effectively preventing other countries from vaccinating their most at-risk populations,” he said.
Missing the mark
As of Wednesday, there were more than 238 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, and more than 4.8 million deaths.
WHO had previously pushed governments to vaccinate 10 per cent of their populations by the end of September, a target which 56 nations missed, most of them in Africa.
Tedros said even more countries are at risk of missing the 40 per cent target to be achieved by the end of the year. Three countries – Burundi, Eritrea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – have yet to start vaccinations.
“About half of the remaining countries are constrained by supply. They have a vaccination programme underway, but don’t have enough supply to accelerate enough to reach the target,” he said.
Tedros urged countries and companies that control global vaccine supply to prioritize distribution to the COVAX solidarity initiative and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT).
Meanwhile, WHO and partners are working with other countries, such as those affected by fragility or conflict, to strengthen technical and logistical capacity for vaccine rollout.
“With aggressive and ambitious action, most of these countries can still reach the 40% target by the end of this year, or be on a clear pathway to reaching it.”
Crisis in Tigray
Tedros also addressed the escalating crisis in northern Ethiopia, where a nearly year-long war in the Tigray region has left up to seven million people in urgent need for food and other assistance.
The conflict has spilled over into neighbouring Afar and Amhara, further increasing needs and complicating response efforts. Aid is not reaching the area “at anywhere close to the levels needed”, he said, and communications, electricity, other basis services remain cut off.
WHO and partners are calling for unfettered access to the affected regions, as the lives of millions of people are at stake, Tedros told journalists.
“People with chronic illnesses are dying due to lack of both food and medicine. Nearly 200,000 children have gone without critical vaccinations,” he said
“When people do not have enough food, they are more susceptible to deadly diseases, as well as the threat of starvation, and that’s what we’re now seeing in Tigray.”
Global health community prescribes climate action for COVID recovery
Ambitious national climate commitments are crucial for States to sustain a healthy, green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new UN health agency report launched on Monday in the lead-up to the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
Based on a growing body of research confirming numerous and inseparable links between climate and health, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health spells out that transformational action in every sector, from energy, transport and nature to food systems and finance is needed to protect people.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment”, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people”.
An urgent call
WHO’s report was launched at the same time as an open letter, signed by over two thirds of the global health workforce – 300 organizations representing at least 45 million doctors and health professionals worldwide – calling for national leaders and COP26 country delegations to step up climate action.
“Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change”, the letter from the health professionals reads.
“We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at COP26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions”.
Fossil fuels ‘killing us’
Both the report and open letter come as unprecedented extreme weather events and other climate impacts are taking a rising toll on everyone.
Heatwaves, storms and floods have taken thousands of lives and disrupted millions of others while also threatening healthcare systems and facilities when they are needed most, according to WHO.
Changes in weather and climate are threatening food security and driving up food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, while climate impacts are also negatively affecting mental health.
“The burning of fossil fuels is killing us. Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity”, states the WHO report. And while no one is safe from the health impacts of climate change, “they are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged”.
Climate actions far outweigh costs
Meanwhile, air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide, according to WHO.
The report states clearly that the public health benefits from implementing ambitious climate actions far outweigh the costs.
“It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face”, said Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
“Bringing down air pollution…would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80 per cent while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change”, she pointed out.
Dr. Neira added that a shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets “could reduce global emissions significantly, ensure more resilient food systems, and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050”.
Call to action
Although achieving the Paris Agreement on climate change would improve air quality, diet and physical activity – saving millions of lives a year – most climate decision-making processes currently do not account for these health co-benefits and their economic valuation.
Tedros underscored WHO’s call for all countries to “commit to decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests”, and highlighted 10 priorities in the report to safeguard “the health of people and the planet that sustains us.”
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