Confusion and complacency in addressing COVID-19 mean the pandemic is a long way from over, but it can be brought under control in months with proven public health measures, the head of the World Health Organization has said.
“We, too, want to see societies and economies reopening, and travel and trade resuming,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing on Monday.
“But right now, intensive care units in many countries are overflowing and people are dying – and it’s totally avoidable.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a long way from over. But we have many reasons for optimism. The decline in cases and deaths during the first two months of the year shows that this virus and its variants can be stopped,” he added, saying transmission was being driven by “confusion, complacency and inconsistency in public health measures.”
India has overtaken Brazil to become the nation to have recorded the second highest total number of infections worldwide after the United States, as it battles a massive second wave. India has given about 105 million vaccine doses among a population of 1.4 billion.
The WHO team leader on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, told the news briefing the pandemic was growing exponentially, with a nine percent increase in cases last week, the seventh consecutive week of increases, and a five percent rise in deaths.
Tedros said that in some countries, despite continuing transmission, restaurants and nightclubs were full and markets were open and crowded with few people taking precautions.
“Some people appear to be taking the approach that if they’re relatively young, it doesn’t matter if they get COVID-19,” he said.
‘Africa must expand vaccine production’
Meanwhile, African leaders and international health officials have called for the expansion of coronavirus vaccine manufacturing on the continent, including by forging partnerships to boost expertise and investment.
Africa has struggled to acquire coronavirus vaccines and imports the vast majority of its medicines and medical equipment, leaving it reliant on overseas supplies.
Its mainly poor nations are falling behind in the global coronavirus vaccination race with under 13 million doses administered so far to the continent’s 1.3 billion people, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said last week.
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Monday it was “morally unconscionable and a serious economic hit” that just 1.1 per 100 Africans had received a vaccine while in North America the rate was over 40 per 100.
“Between a steeper fall and a weaker rebound, Africa will have lost ground to other regions,” she told a virtual conference organised by the African Union. “So to boost growth, trade and livelihoods, we need to get vaccines to everyone who needs them.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the African Union’s COVID-19 response champion and leader of the African country hardest hit by the coronavirus in terms of infections and deaths, said the medium-term strategy should be to expand existing manufacturing facilities into regional hubs.
“We also need to forge sustainable partnerships with entities in both the developed world as well as the developing world,” he said.
African countries, he added, could seek guidance from countries like India and Brazil on how they developed their generic pharmaceutical industries.
Africa now imports 99 percent of all its vaccines, but should aim to reduce imports to around 40 percent by 2040, Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said.
Okonjo-Iweala said that building more manufacturing capacity would require long-term investments but countries could offer incentives such as cutting tariffs on raw materials.
She encouraged WTO members to find a “pragmatic outcome” to a proposal by India and South Africa that vaccine and other medical patents be suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic to speed up technology transfers to manufacturers with spare production capacity.
Tedros said the WHO supports calls for manufacturers to remove obstacles hindering access to critical health products.
“We continue to call on companies to share know-how,” he told the conference.