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Omicron COVID variant underlines need for global ‘pandemic treaty’

A nurse at the special COVID-19 Field Hospital in Nasrec, Johannesburg, puts on her PPE. IMF Photo/James Oatway

The emergence of the threatening new Omicron variant shows how important it is for the world to end the current “cycle of panic and neglect” over the COVID-19 pandemic, said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was addressing the start of a special three-day meeting of the organisation’s governing body in Geneva on Monday, amidst a global alert over the new strain, arguing that greater international cooperation is essential to preserve “hard won gains” against the virus.

The World Health Assembly meeting was convened to decide on the issue of a so-called “pandemic treaty”.

Tedros said the world has not responded accordingly to COVID-19, and vaccine inequity, among other challenges, has facilitated the appearance of new highly mutated variants such as Omicron.

“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores”, said the WHO Director General.

Praise for South Africa alert

Tedros underscored that South Africa – where Omicron was first identified just days ago – should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting the new variant, and not penalized, referring to the current travel bans many countries are imposing on the African nation and its neighbours.

The UN Secretary-General also expressed his deep concern on Monday for the isolation now being felt by southern African countries due to the new restrictions imposed on travel from the region, by dozens of nations across the world.

The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world”, said António Guterres, in a strongly-worded statement.

I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travellers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures”, he added.

The UN health agency has asked governments to take science-based decisions regarding the travel bans. Guterres said it was important to take all appropriate measures to allow for travel and “economic engagement”.

A Brazilian health worker receives a COVID-19 vaccination.
A Brazilian health worker receives a COVID-19 vaccination. UNICEF/PAHO/Karina Zambrana
 

Prevent history from repeating itself

The likelihood of the potential further spread of Omicron at the global level has been defined as “very high” by WHO.

Dr. Tedros reminded that although scientists still don’t know for certain if the variant is associated with more risk of transmission and severe disease, or if it has any impact on the effectiveness of vaccines, the world shouldn’t need another ‘wake up call’.

“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us. We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect.  Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant. Our most immediate task, therefore, is to end this pandemic”, he highlighted.

The WHO chief added that our ability to end the current pandemic is a ‘test for our collective ability to prevent and respond effectively to future pandemics’.

“The same principles apply: Courageous and compassionate leadership; Fidelity to science; Generosity in sharing the fruits of research; And an unshakeable commitment to equity and solidarity.

“If we cannot apply those principles now to tame COVID-19, how can we hope to prevent history repeating?”, he asked delegates from more than 190 countries.

A man wears a face mask and gloves while sitting in a cafe in Glasgow, Scotland.
A man wears a face mask and gloves while sitting in a cafe in Glasgow, Scotland. Unsplash/Ross Sneddon

The vaccine crisis

More than 80% of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries while low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6% of all vaccines, Dr. Tedros emphasised.

He reiterated the message he has been sending the world for over a year: vaccine equity is not charity, but it is in every country’s best interests.

“No country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic alone.  The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more opportunity this virus has to spread and evolve in ways we cannot predict nor prevent. We are all in this together”, he explained.

Equity plea: rights experts

Human rights experts joined Tedros on his call on Monday, urging States to act decisively to ensure that all people have equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those in low-income countries who have largely been left out of the global response.

More than 27 UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts sent a joint statement as a response to the announcement of the indefinite postponement of the World Trade Organization 12th Ministerial Conference, in which a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to facilitate vaccine patents was set to be discussed.

“The postponement… should not be a reason to delay progress already made: on the contrary, it confirms the urgent need to take collective action to address vaccine inequality…”, they said, adding that the priority should be to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

On 14 October, the experts sent 44 letters to the WTO, G7 and G20 States, the European Union and pharmaceutical companies urging equal and universal vaccine access. So far, only six responses have been received.

ICU staff working to save COVID patients in Wuhan, China, in April 2020.
ICU staff working to save COVID patients in Wuhan, China, in April 2020. Yun Liu

Now is the moment to act

“Comprehensive. Coordinated. Effective. Three words that history will not use to describe the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Dr. Tedros highlighted, advocating for a new common and binding global approach to pandemics.

He said that the task was urgent but also required patience as a convention, agreement or another international instrument, will not solve every problem.

“But, it will provide the overarching framework to foster greater international cooperation and provide a platform for strengthening global health security”, he added.

The special World Health Assembly session runs until Wednesday, and by the end of the three-day virtual meeting, countries will decide if there is political will to design a new international framework to respond to future pandemics.

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