COVID-19: WHO IHR-Emergency Committee meets knocks States Parties in implementing blanket travel bans

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (who), Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus has restated his support for all efforts to expand access to and uptake of COVID-19 vaccination, with the expectation that those who have access to vaccines get vaccinated and continued adherence to Public Health and Social Measures (PHSM).

Dr. Ghebreyesus made this known at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva, while welcoming Committee members and advisers to the 10th International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee Meeting held on January 13.

The tenth meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Members and Advisors of the Emergency Committee were convened by videoconference.

Delivering his address, the D.G highlighted the challenges posed by the high transmission levels of the SARS CoV-2 Omicron variant of concern (VOC) and the corresponding burden on public health systems and health service delivery.

He also emphasized the importance of vulnerable populations in all countries getting timely and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccination; and expressed hope that, by working together, the world can bring an end to the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A statement from WHO reveals that representatives of the Office of Legal Counsel (LEG) and the Department of Compliance, Risk Management, and Ethics (CRE) briefed the members on their roles and responsibilities, providing them with an overview of the WHO Declaration of Interests process.

After the meeting was turned to the Chair, Professor Didier Houssin by the Secretariat, Professor Houssin noted the continuing challenges caused by SARS-CoV-2 nearly two years after the first meeting of the Committee.

“There were also presentations at the meeting which focused on, “The global epidemiological context including an overview of the Omicron VOC; factors that continue to drive transmission, potential future scenarios which may involve variants that are more or less severe, and challenges posed by the continued evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in animal and human reservoirs; the status of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination targets for 2022; and updates on international traffic and progress on the Temporary Recommendations issued following the 9th meeting of the Emergency Committee.”

“Challenges and opportunities to harmonize national and global response efforts within the context of the synchronous outbreaks of Omicron VOC, including in relation to international travel; drivers for emergence of new VOCs as well as differences in the characteristics of Delta and Omicron VOCs and their respective lineages; the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 testing strategies as well as accessibility and affordability of medical countermeasures, were discussed by the Committee.

Other discussion points included “Vaccination strategies and the use of heterologous vaccine combinations; the challenges to maintain continued community buy-in for public health and social measures after two years of the pandemic and the risk of overly optimistic statements regarding the state of the pandemic.

“The increasing levels of threat and concerns about personal safety faced by frontline responders, advisors and leaders of the pandemic response; the focus of response efforts on a combination of suppression of transmission and mitigation of severe outcomes; and the need for an on-goin g integrated One Health approach to SARS-CoV-2 surveillance, research, and response efforts.”

South Africa was applauded for their rapid identification, and transparent and rapid sharing of information on the Omicron VOC, as the Committee expressed concerned over the reaction of States Parties in implementing blanket travel bans, which are not effective in suppressing international spread (as clearly demonstrated by the Omicron experience), and may discourage transparent and rapid reporting of emerging VOC.

The Committee also noted with concern reports of violence against health workers, public health officials, and expert advisors engaged in the COVID-19 response and condemned such acts that undermine national and global response efforts.

The statement revealed that the Committee further expressed deep concern that countries not eligible for the COVAX Facility Advance Market Commitment (AMC) are experiencing challenges affording COVID-19 vaccines, noting also challenges posed by the high prices of certain therapeutics, the lack of equity in access, and limited data availability on cost-effectiveness of these treatments.

The WHO to continue its work with the pharmaceutical sector to address barriers to access and affordability, by expanding tiered pricing, voluntary license agreements and other approaches to increase access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic tests for all countries, possibly looking at the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework for guidance.”

“While current vaccines continue to be effective in reducing risk of severe disease and death due to COVID-19, they do not completely eliminate the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (all variants). A coordinated global strategy is critical for assuring protection of high-risk populations everywhere, with particular focus in countries that have low vaccination rates, especially those with a rate below 10%.

“To derive the optimal vaccination strategy for reducing infection, morbidity and mortality, the Committee stressed the importance of coordinating research on heterologous vaccine combinations, considering also the natural immunity following infection, and the need for manufacturers to produce and share the relevant data. In addition, the Committee noted the importance of expediting research and development on novel vaccine technologies. The current vaccination technology is dependent on syringes which are in limited supply, presenting a significant logistical and programmatic burden.

“Rapid development of alternative vaccine formulations, such as intranasal vaccines, could increase the ease of delivery in low resource and/or hard to reach areas. Also, there is a clear need for continued work on vaccines that confer broader immunity across variants. “The Committee acknowledged the work of other WHO technical advisory groups such as the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards (STAG-IH), the Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-CO-VAC), the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), the Research and Development Blueprint for Epidemics working groups and the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) that are having on-going in-depth discussions on the key elements of vaccine composition, strategy development, and virus evolution, and are regularly reporting on their findings.”

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