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COVID-19 threatens global progress against malaria

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Gaps in life-saving interventions are undermining efforts to curb malaria, amid fears that the coronavirus pandemic could set back the fight against the disease even further, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has said. 

According to the World Malaria Report, released on Monday, the situation is particularly concerning in high-burden countries in Africa.

The UN health agency urged nations and health partners to step up the fight against malaria, with better targeting of interventions, new tools and increased funding.

“It is time for leaders across Africa – and the world – to rise once again to the challenge of malaria, just as they did when they laid the foundation for the progress made since the beginning of this century,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Through joint action, and a commitment to leaving no one behind, we can achieve our shared vision of a world free of malaria.”

Though preventable and curable, malaria continues to claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year. According to WHO, nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of the disease and most cases and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Malaria is transmitted through the bites of female Anopheles mosquitoes and controlling the vector – such as by using mosquito nets and indoor residual spraying – can help prevent and reduce transmission of the disease.

A plateau ‘in progress’

The WHO report found that in 2019, malaria cases globally numbered about 229 million, an annual estimate that has remained virtually unchanged over the last four years. Last year, the disease claimed about 409,000 lives, compared to 411,000 in 2018. 

As in past years, the African region accounted for more than 90 per cent of the overall disease burden. The region has made much progress since 2000, reducing its malaria death toll by 44 per cent – from an estimated 680,000 to 384,000 – but the pace has slowed in recent years, particularly in countries with a high disease burden. 

A funding shortfall at both the international and domestic levels poses a “significant threat” to future gains, according to WHO. In 2019, total funding reached $3 billion, far short of the global target of $5.6 billion, resulting in critical gaps in access to proven malaria control tools. 

Sustain, expand programmes 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as an additional challenge for essential health services worldwide. Though most malaria prevention campaigns were able to move forward without major delays, WHO voiced concerns that even “moderate disruptions” in access to treatment could lead to a considerable loss of life. 

For instance, a 10 per cent disruption in access to effective antimalarial treatment in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to 19,000 additional deaths, while disruptions of 25-50 per cent in the region could result in an additional 46,000 and 100,000 deaths, respectively. 

According to WHO, ensuring access to malaria prevention, such as insecticide-treated nets and preventive medicines for children, also supported the response to COVID-19 by reducing the number of malaria infections and, in turn, easing the strain on health systems. 

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, underlined the need to ensure that malaria programmes are sustained and expanded. 

“COVID-19 threatens to further derail our efforts to overcome malaria, particularly treating people with the disease. Despite the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on African economies, international partners and countries need to do more to ensure that the resources are there to expand malaria programmes which are making such a difference in people’s lives,” she said. 

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COVID-19 committee stresses need for equitable vaccine access, more data sharing

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An Arab-Israeli woman shows her COVID-19 card which shows she has been vaccinated against the virus. Mohamed Yassin

As COVID-19 cases spike in parts of Europe, Africa and the Americas, and new variants of the virus emerge in some countries, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday called for greater global collaboration in ending the pandemic.  

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reported on the outcomes of the latest meeting of the Emergency Committee on COVID-19, held online the previous day. 

Experts issued a statement calling for upgrading national capacity for genome sequencing, and greater data sharing, in efforts to monitor and respond to changes in the virus.   

Tedros told journalists he was pleased they also emphasized that vaccines must be rolled out equitably.   

“Health workers are exhausted, health systems are stretched and we’re seeing supplies of oxygen run dangerously low in some countries”, he said, speaking during the agency’s regular end of week press briefing, from its Geneva headquarters.   

“Now is the time we must pull together as common humanity and rollout vaccines to health workers and those at highest risk.”  

Virus vs humanity 

Professor Didier Houssin, the Committee chair, underlined that scientific collaboration is essential to understand any COVID-19 variants. 

“I think we are in a race between the virus, which is going to continue trying to mutate in order to spread more easily, and humanity, which has to try to stop this spreading,” he said. 

The Emergency Committee also issued recommendations on international travel. 

The statement said countries should not require travellers to show proof of vaccination or immunity at the present time “as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines”. 

Friday marked a solemn milestone in the global fight against COVID-19, as more than two million people have now died from the disease.  

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a strongly worded video statement, admonishing countries to work together to end the pandemic and save lives.

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Guterres warns against self-defeating ‘vaccinationalism’

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With more than two million lives now lost worlwide to COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General appealed on Friday for countries to work together and help each other to end the pandemic and save lives. In a video statement, Secretary-General António Guterres noted that the absence of a global coordinated effort has worsened the pandemic’s deadly impact.

“Behind this staggering number are names and faces: the smile now only a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one”, Mr. Guterres said.

Solidarity, to save more souls

 “In the memory of those two million souls, the world must act with far greater solidarity,” he added.

Since its discovery at the end of December 2019, COVID-19 has now spread to all corners of the world, with cases in 191 countries and regions. Deaths due to the disease reached the grim milestone of one million only in September.

 In addition, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has been massive, with countless jobs and livelihoods lost globally, and millions pushed into poverty and hunger.

 A ‘vaccine vacuum’

 Mr. Guterres went on to note that though safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out, disparity continue between nations.

 “Vaccines are reaching high income countries quickly, while the world’s poorest have none at all,” he said, adding that “some countries are pursuing side deals, even procuring beyond need.”

 The UN chief went on to note that while governments have a responsibility to protect their populations, “‘vaccinationalism’ is self-defeating and will delay a global recovery.”

 “COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time,” he stressed. Mr. Guterres called on countries to commit now to sharing any excess doses of vaccines, to help urgently vaccinate health workers around the world and prevent health systems from collapsing.

He also reiterated the need to ensure full funding for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT Accelerator) and its COVAX facility, to make vaccines available and affordable to all.

Proven steps

At the same time, people must remember and practice “simple and proven” steps to keep each other safe: wearing masks, physically distancing, avoiding crowds, and hand hygiene.

 “Our world can only get ahead of this virus one way – together. Global solidarity will save lives, protect people and help defeat this vicious virus”, added Mr. Guterres.

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Health experts arrive in Wuhan to investigate COVID-19 origins

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Members of an international team studying the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19 arrived in Wuhan, China, on Thursday, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced during an expert meeting on the disease. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, was addressing the latest session of the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 established under the International Health Regulations (IHR), a treaty that guides global response to public health risks. 

The new coronavirus that sparked the pandemic first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019.  Tedros reported that most of the 15 members of the delayed mission are now in the city, although two people are still in Singapore awaiting COVID-19 test results. 

“All members of the team had multiple negative PCR and antibody tests in their homes countries prior to traveling”, he said. 

“The team members who have arrived in Wuhan will be in quarantine for the next two weeks, and will begin working remotely with counterparts in China. They will then continue their work on the ground for a further two weeks.” 

Focus now on vaccine equity, travel prospects 

Thursday marked the sixth meeting of the IHR Emergency Committee on COVID-19.   

Members first convened a year ago, when there were less than 560 cases of the new disease. Today, more than 90 million cases have been reported globally, and the death toll has almost reached two million. 

Tedros said although the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines represents “hope of light at the end of the tunnel”, focus is now on ensuring all countries can access them on an equitable basis. 

He also highlighted two urgent issues for the committee’s attention: the recent emergence of multiple new variants of the virus, and the potential use of vaccination and testing certificates for international travel. 

“One theme ties both issues together: solidarity”, said Tedros.  “We cannot afford to prioritize or punish certain groups or countries. We are all in this together, and we must all come out of it together.” 

Challenges in Africa 

Meanwhile, the UN agency has warned of the need to avert a “runaway surge” of infections in Africa, as cases there top three million and new variants of the virus emerge on the continent. 

COVID-19 cases have risen steadily since mid-September, with a steeper rise from late November, and could increase in the wake of the Christmas and New Year holidays due to travel and festive gatherings. 

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said although virus mutations are not surprising, preliminary analysis reveals that a new variant circulating widely in South Africa, known as 501Y.V2, is more transmissible.  

“Even if the new variant is not more virulent, a virus that can spread more easily will put further strain on hospitals and health workers who are in many cases already overstretched”, she said.  

“This is a stark reminder that the virus is relentless, that it still presents a manifest threat, and that our war is far from won.” 

WHO is supporting African countries with reinforcing genome sequencing efforts, key to finding and understanding new COVID-19 variants. 

So far, 501Y.V2 has been identified in Botswana, the Gambia and Zambia, while Nigeria is further investigating another variant found in samples collected in August and November.   The virus variant circulating in the United Kingdom has not been reported on the continent.

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