Task Force Contributes to Special COVID-19 Session of the World Health Assembly

COVID-19 deaths surpassed five million people globally in November and there have been more than 250 million cases.

While American children are now able to get vaccines and adults in wealthy countries are eligible for booster shots, only 5% of people in the least wealthy 52 countries are immunized, underscoring issues of inequity and increasing the potential for another variant to emerge. The pandemic situation remains a ‘mixed bag’ as U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci put it in a recent New York Times Q&A.

In early November, The Task Force for Global Health and others with formal World Health Organization (WHO) partner status were invited to a Member State-led Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies (WGPR). The group identified key recommendations that will be considered by a Special Session of the World Health Assembly November 29-December 1.

As one of 217 non-State actors with a formal WHO partnership agreement, The Task Force has contributed  policy recommendations to the WGPR, Member States and the WHO Secretariat.  

Task Force experts, including Respiratory Virus Prevention Director Dr. Joseph Bresee, recommended immediate action to address disparities in access to vaccines between high- and low-resource countries to help end the pandemic. They also  stressed the need for pandemic preparedness to be integrated into national public health and healthcare systems, including National Public Health Institutes and Field Epidemiology Training Programs. 

For example, adding COVID-19 vaccination programs to existing immunization platforms, such as for influenza, is a cost-effective way to build national capacity. The Task Force is currently using  this infrastructure with more than 35 countries  to support roll out of COVID-19 vaccines and build systems that will be utilized beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. This work is grounded in The  Task Force’s Partnership for Influenza Vaccine Introduction, which launched in 2013 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Centers for Disease Control and has delivered more than 4 million vaccines since that time.

Member States have been divided on the approach needed to prepare for future pandemics, with some proposing modification of the International Health Regulations, a set of international laws established in 2005 for the prevention, protection, and control of public health threats, while others are promoting the need for a new global treaty. The final recommendations, to be considered at the upcoming special session, suggest a mix of the two approaches.

Header photo: WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus makes opening remarks for the 74th World Health Assembly, May 2021, in the Executive Board Room at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva. Photo courtesy of the WHO.

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