Vaccines giving us another window of opportunity: read WHO Director-General’s closing remarks at 148th session of the Executive Board Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 28, 2021

Your Excellency Harsh Vardhan, first of all, I would like to thank you for your leadership as chair over the past week, and the past year.

And my thanks to all members of the Board for your dedication and attention over the past 8 days. I can understand virtual meetings for 8 days are very difficult, but thank you for your commitment.

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You have addressed an enormous range of issues, reflecting the huge scope of health challenges we face, and the huge scope of expectations the world has of WHO.

Your agenda has spanned many issues related to the “triple billion” targets, including oral health, social determinants of health, patient safety, diabetes, NCDs, disability, HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections, eye care, antimicrobial resistance, immunization, medical devices, substandard and falsified medical products, local production, health innovation and intellectual property – and more.

You have also had important discussions about strengthening WHO to better support countries in addressing this massive scope of issues – the programme budget, sustainable financing, sexual exploitation and abuse, and more.

All of this is happening under the shadow of the greatest health crisis of our time.

This Saturday marks one year since I declared a public health emergency of international concern over the emergence of the novel coronavirus.

At the time, there were fewer than 100 cases – to be exact, 98 cases – and no deaths reported outside China.

This week, we expect to reach 100 million reported cases, and more than 2 million people have lost their lives.

When this Board met a year ago, I said the world had a “window of opportunity” to prevent widespread transmission of this new virus.

Some heeded that call; some did not.

Now, vaccines are giving us another window of opportunity to bring the pandemic under control. We must not squander it.  

As we speak, rich countries are rolling out vaccines, while the world’s least-developed countries watch and wait.

With every day that passes, the divide grows larger between the world’s haves and have nots.

In my opening remarks last Monday, I said the world faced a catastrophic moral failure if it doesn’t walk the talk on vaccine equity.

A new study published yesterday by the International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation confirms that it would also be an economic failure.

The study finds that vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy up to US$9.2 trillion, and almost half of that – US$4.5 trillion – would be incurred in the wealthiest economies.

By contrast, the financing gap for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator this year is US$26 billion.

If fully funded, the ACT Accelerator would return up to US$166 for every dollar invested.

In our press conference yesterday, the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce called the funding gap for the ACT Accelerator a “rounding error” – and he’s right – compared to the stimulus packages that have been rolled out in many countries.

Vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it’s in every nation’s own interests to support vaccine equity.

I leave you with the challenge I set at the beginning of the week: together, we must ensure that vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries within the first 100 days of this year.

We have 74 days left. Time is short, and the stakes could not be higher.

Every moment counts.

Thank you all once again. I hope that before too long we will be able to meet in person.

I thank you. All the best, and a better 2021.

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