WHO DG’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 January 2021
Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.
One year ago, the first death from COVID-19 was reported and WHO issued its first tranche of technical guidance.
The comprehensive package included guidance on surveillance, lab testing, infection prevention and control, a readiness checklist, and risk communication and community engagement.
A year on, there have been almost 2 million deaths from the COVID-19 virus and while we are hopeful about the safe and effective vaccines that are being rolled out, we want to see this sped up and vaccines allocated equitably in the coming weeks.
Next week at the WHO Executive Board, I will be encouraging all countries to fulfill their pledges to COVAX.
I call for a collective commitment so that within the next 100 days, vaccination for health workers and those at high-risk in all countries are underway.
Governments, manufacturers, civil society, religious and community leaders must come together to create the greatest mass mobilization in history for equitable vaccination.
WHO continues to ask vaccine manufacturers from around the world to move swiftly to provide the necessary data that will allow us to consider them for emergency use listings.
I’m pleased that a WHO team is in China currently working with producers of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to assess compliance with international quality manufacturing practices ahead of potential emergency use listing by WHO.
To clarify this is separate from the WHO origins mission.
We also look forward to Serum Institute of India submitting full data sets for rapid assessment so WHO can determine whether we can recommend their AstraZeneca vaccine for international use.
These are just a couple examples of work under way by WHO, GAVI, CEPI and other partners aimed at safe, rapid, equitable and wise allocation of vaccines.
As I have said before and will say again, saving lives, livelihoods and economies depends on a global agreement to avoid vaccine nationalism.
Over the weekend, WHO was notified by Japan about a new variant of the virus.
The more the virus spreads the higher the chance of new changes to the virus.
Most notably, transmissibility of some variants of the virus appears to be increasing.
This can drive a surge of cases and hospitalizations, which is highly problematic for health workers and hospitals already close to breaking point.
This is especially true where public health and social measures have already broken down.
This can have a knock-on effect on other essential health services. At present, the variants do not seem to show increased severity of disease. With new treatments coming down the pipeline, we are hopeful that more lives of those with serious cases of COVID-19 can be saved.
But we need to follow the public health basics now more than ever.
Keep as much physical distance as you can from other people. Keep rooms well-ventilated. Wear a mask. Keep your hands clean. And cough away from others into your elbow.
You might get fed up of hearing it but the virus is not fed up with us.
Limiting transmission limits the chance of dangerous new variants from developing.
What’s most critical is that we sequence the virus effectively so we know how it’s changing and how to respond.
For example, while diagnostics and vaccines still seem to be effective against the current virus, we may need to tweak them in the future.
Last week, WHO released a comprehensive implementation guide and risk-monitoring framework to help countries set up high-impact sequencing programmes.
We call on all countries to increase the sequencing of the virus to supplement ongoing surveillance, monitoring and testing efforts.
And to share that data internationally. This helps us better understand when variants of concern are identified.
We are aware that sequencing requires specialized equipment, a trained workforce and close collaboration between experts.
Building upon our existing lab networks, WHO is working with countries to enhance sequencing capacity and we extend our support to all countries who need it.
We achieve much of this through our international network of labs for SARS-CoV-2 and influenza flu lab network, both of which have been a beacon of science, solutions and solidarity in the last year.
Tomorrow, WHO’s R&D Blueprint group is convening scientists from around the world to set global research priorities for the year ahead, including on virus variants and sequencing.
This builds on a years worth of work defining and delivering on an R&D roadmap for COVID-19.
Just as we look forward on research and rolling out vaccines, we continue work on the origins.
We are pleased that an international team of scientists – distinguished experts from ten institutions and countries – are commencing their travel to China to engage in and review scientific research with their Chinese counterparts on the origins of the virus.
I want to thank all GOARN partners and the countries supporting this mission.
This includes Australia, Denmark, Germany, Kenya, Japan, Netherlands, Qatar, Russia, Sudan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Vietnam, and our colleagues from China.
Studies will begin in Wuhan to identify the potential source of infection of the early cases.
Scientific evidence will drive hypotheses, which will then be the basis for further, longer-term studies.
This is important not just for COVID-19 but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential.
We will share more news as we have it but let’s give this team of scientists the space to work with their Chinese counterparts effectively and let’s wish them all well. I thank you.