The end of a year is always an opportunity to look back, and to look forward.
As we look back, 2021 gave us many reasons to hope.
Science delivered that hope, in the form of vaccines, which have undoubtedly saved many lives this year.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the inequitable sharing of those vaccines has cost many lives.
2021 was a year in which we lost 3.5 million people to COVID-19 – more deaths than from HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined in 2020.
And still, COVID-19 continues to claim around 50 thousand lives every week.
As Omicron becomes the dominant variant in many countries, all of us need to take extra precautions.
Today, WHO is issuing updated guidance for health workers, recommending the use of either a respirator or a medical mask, in addition to other personal protective equipment, when entering a room where there is a patient with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
Respirators, which includes masks known as N95, FFP2 and others, should especially be worn in care settings where ventilation is known to be poor.
However, we are painfully aware that many health workers around the world are unable to access respirators.
We therefore ask manufacturers and countries to scale up the production, procurement and distribution of both respirators and medical masks for use in health and care settings.
It’s essential that all health workers have all the tools they need to do their jobs – the training, the PPE, the safe work environment, and the vaccines.
It’s frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, 3 in 4 health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated.
While some countries are now rolling out blanket booster programmes, only half of WHO’s Member States have been able to reach the target of vaccinating 40% of their populations by the end of the year, because of distortions in global supply.
Enough vaccines were administered globally this year that the 40% target could have been reached in every country by September, if those vaccines had been distributed equitably, through COVAX and AVAT.
We’re encouraged that supply is improving.
Today, COVAX shipped its 800 millionth vaccine dose. Half of those doses have been shipped in the past three months.
Our projections show that supply should be sufficient to vaccinate the entire global adult population, and to give boosters to high-risk populations, by the first quarter of 2022.
However, only later in 2022 will supply be sufficient for extensive use of boosters in all adults.
So I call once again on countries and manufacturers to prioritize COVAX and AVAT, and to work together to support those who are furthest behind.
Today, the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, or SAGE, is issuing an interim statement on booster doses.
SAGE concluded that the focus of immunization must remain on decreasing death and severe disease, and expressed concern that blanket booster programmes will exacerbate vaccine inequity.
About 20% of all vaccine doses administered every day are currently being given as boosters or additional doses.
Blanket booster programmes are likely to prolong the pandemic, rather than ending it, by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not un-boosted people.
And we must be very clear that the vaccines we have remain effective against both the Delta and Omicron variants.
The global priority must be to support all countries to reach the 40% target as quickly as possible, and the 70% target by the middle of next year.
No country can boost its way out of the pandemic.
And boosters cannot be seen as a ticket to go ahead with planned celebrations, without the need for other precautions.
Even as we work to make the best use of the vaccines we have, WHO is also working to identify the next generation of vaccines through the Solidarity Trial Vaccines.
The Solidarity Trial Vaccines is co-sponsored by WHO and the Ministries of Health of Colombia, Mali and Philippines, and aims to accelerate the evaluation of more COVID-19 vaccines, to expand the portfolio and improve access.
It is also intended to uncover second-generation vaccines with greater protection against variants of concern, with longer duration of protection, or to assess vaccines that can be given without needles.
The vaccines in the trial were selected by an independent advisory group of leading scientists and experts.
Research teams in Colombia, Mali, and Philippines began recruiting volunteers in late September, and so far, over 11,500 people are participating in the trial.
So far, the trial includes two vaccines, three others will be included shortly, and more can be included.
WHO invites all countries and research centres to participate in this trial.
2021 has been a painful year for many of us. But we cannot allow it to be a wasted year.
As we approach a new year, we must all learn the painful lessons this year taught us.
2022 must be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it must also be the beginning of something else – a new era of solidarity.
We must leave 2021 behind with sorrow, and look forward to 2022 in hope.
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