The head of the World Health Organization slammed wealthy countries for a “scandalous inequity” in COVID-19 vaccines that is prolonging the coronavirus pandemic, and said 10 countries account for 75% of the vaccine doses that have so far been administered.
“There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in opening comments at the WHO’s annual assembly on Monday.
Tedros called on the agency’s member states to ensure that at least 10% of the population of every country is fully vaccinated by September and for at least 30% to be vaccinated by December.
“Countries that vaccinate low-risk groups now do it at the expense of health workers and high-risk groups in other countries,” said Tedros, as he paid tribute to the sacrifices made by healthcare workers around the world working to protect patients from COVID-19.
At least 115,000 healthcare workers have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, he said.
“I understand that every government has a duty to protect its own people. I understand that every government wants to vaccinate its entire population. That’s what we want, too. And in time, there will be enough supply for everyone, including those at lower risk. But right now, there is not enough supply,” he said.
‘There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world.’
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization
He called on drug manufacturers to commit vaccines to Covax, the WHO program that seeks to get vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Covax has so far shipped 70 million doses to 124 countries and economies, he said. “But that is sufficient for less than 0.5% of the combined population of those countries,” he said.
The importance of vaccines is reflected in the declining number of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S., where average daily case counts are at their lowest point since mid-June of 2020 and down more than 90% from their January 2021 highs.
Testing positivity rates are at their lowest rate since March 2020, when data collection began, this week averaging 3%, said Raymond James healthcare analyst Chris Meekins. Hospitalizations fell by 11%, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday, 39% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated, meaning 130 million Americans have received two shots of the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc.
and German partner BioNTech SE
or Moderna Inc.
or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson
single-dose vaccine. The AstraZeneca
vaccine has not been authorized for use in the U.S. Some 163 million Americans have received at least one dose, equal to 49% of the population.
Among Americans 65 and older, 40 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to73.9% of that group. Almost 47 million people in that age bracket have received a first jab, covering 85.4% of that population.
“These statistics bring hope and new beginnings for Americans to return to normal activities, leading to happy days being here again,” said Meekins.
The picture is far bleaker elsewhere, however, with India passing the grim milestone of more than 300,000 COVID deaths, after recording 4,454 deaths in a single day, according to its health ministry, the second highest toll on record after it counted 4,529 fatalities in a 24-hour period last week, the most for any country since the start of the outbreak. Those numbers are still likely vastly understated, given a shortage of testing and the overall stress on India’s healthcare system, experts say.
India’s case tally of more than 26.7 million is probably understated, too, and thousands of COVID patients are now also suffering from black fungus, or mucormycosis, a rare and potentially lethal infection affecting most commonly lungs, sinuses and brains.
Elsewhere, Japan mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday as the government tries to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb infections just two months before hosting the Olympics, as the Associated Press reported.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo after a one-year delay and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite skepticism that it’s possible. Worries about public safety while many Japanese remain unvaccinated have prompted growing protests and calls for canceling the Games set to start on July 23. A recent survey found 80% of those polled in Japan in favor of canceling the giant sporting event.
In other news:
• Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report that could add weight to growing calls for a fuller probe of whether the COVID-19 virus may have escaped from the laboratory, the Wall Street Journal reported. The details of the reporting go beyond a State Department fact sheet, issued during the final days of the Trump administration, which said that several researchers at the lab, a center for the study of coronaviruses and other pathogens, became sick in autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.”
• U.K. health officials are optimistic that the coronavirus restrictions remaining in England can be lifted in June after an official study found that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines offer effective protection against the variant first identified in India, the Associated Press reported. More than 2,880 cases of the Indian variant have been recorded in England, figures show. The government has said the variant appears to be more transmissible, but there was still uncertainty about how concerning this was.
• Federal health officials’ new, more relaxed recommendations on mask wearing in the U.S. have all but eclipsed another major change in guidance from the government: Fully vaccinated Americans can largely skip getting tested for the coronavirus, the AP reported. The CDC said that most people who have received the full course of shots and have no COVID-19 symptoms don’t need to be screened for the virus, even if exposed to someone infected. The change represents a new phase in the epidemic after nearly a year in which testing was the primary weapon against the virus. Vaccines are now central to the response and have driven down hospitalizations and deaths dramatically.
• Pfizer is testing its experimental 20-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine in combination with a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine in adults who are 65 years old or older, MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. The study includes 600 participants from the Phase 3 clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine. Both Pfizer and Moderna Inc. are testing booster doses for their two-dose, mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines.
• Taiwan recorded six new deaths from COVID-19 and several hundred more cases, as a recent outbreak ends its long run of being mostly COVID-free, the Guardian reported. The island counted 334 new local cases on Monday and added 256 to last week’s total. Over the weekend hundreds of new cases were added to the previous week’s total, after authorities started to clear a backlog of thousands of tests. Taiwan is on Level 3 alert, which requires the closure of entertainment and recreation venues, public venues, and sporting grounds.
• Malaysia suffered 61 COVID-19 deaths on Monday, its highest daily toll since the start of the pandemic, according to its health ministry. The country of roughly 32 million people counted 6,509 new cases to bring the total to 518,600.
The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 166.9 million on Monday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll rose above 3.46 million.
The U.S. continues to lead the world in total cases with 33.1 million and deaths with 590,056.
India is second worldwide with 26.8 million cases, and third with 303,720 deaths,
Brazil is third in cases with 16 million and second in deaths with 449,068.
Mexico is fourth by fatalities with 221,647 and 2.4 million cases.
The U.K. has 4.5 million cases and 127,986 deaths, the fifth highest in the world and most of any country in Europe.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,874 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.