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WHO warns against 'nationalism' in coronavirus fight

WHO warns against 'nationalism' in coronavirus fight
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The World Health Organization (WHO) is warning countries that hoarding supplies and an eventual coronavirus vaccine will prolong the epidemic at a steep cost to poor and developing nations.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said his agency is developing plans to distribute the vaccine equitably across the globe, once the science shows that a potential candidate is both effective at generating an immune response and safe in humans.

“We need to prevent vaccine nationalism,” Tedros said. “Sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in each country’s national interest. No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, countries hoarding supplies of protective and medical equipment have contributed to snags in the global supply chain. Now public health experts are warning that the same supply chain failures could hinder the manufacture and distribution of the drugs needed to bring the pandemic to an end.

Tedros said the WHO will propose rolling out a vaccine in two phases, first proportionally to every country that participates, and then to countries that are at the most risk. Health care workers would be given the highest priority, followed by those over the age of 65, an age group that is most likely to suffer the worst consequences of the virus.

“If we don’t protect these highest-risk people from the virus everywhere and at the same time, we can’t stabilize health systems and rebuild the global economy,” Tedros said. “We are all so interconnected.”

Other public health officials said equitable distribution across the globe makes sense from both a moral perspective and a medical perspective. In an interconnected world, every region is vulnerable to new outbreaks; even countries that have wrestled the virus under control, like China, have seen reimportations from other places where the virus is not under control.

“The idea that a few countries would vaccinate themselves and get the high vaccine coverage and then they would feel safe I don’t think is really right,” Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in a recent interview. “If the pandemic is raging out of control in other countries, you still won’t go back to normal travel, tourism, commerce. The virus has the potential to mutate if it’s continuing to spread heavily. So from a public health point of view, what you want to try to do is tamp down the virus globally, and that means having a vaccine available globally.”

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Gavi has worked with manufacturers to guarantee as many as 2 billion doses of vaccine by the end of 2021.

But countries and regions are signing their own deals for hundreds of millions of doses, raising fears that wealthy countries will be able to corner the market on a vaccine. The United States has signed deals with the pharmaceutical giants Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and GSK for their vaccine candidates, if they prove effective. The European Union has signed a deal to purchase 400 million doses from AstraZeneca if their vaccine is successful.

Nations in Africa, Asia and South America lack the resources to sign the same types of deals.

“Many of the poorest countries are not wealthy enough to pay for vaccines,” Berkley said.