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World Health Assembly moves to end COVID-19, prevent next one

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FILE PHOTO: World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference organized by Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo


As part of efforts to end COVID-19, the 74th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) has promised to urgently end the pandemic and prevent the next one by building a healthier, safer and fairer world.

WHA is World Health Organisation’s (WHO) highest decision-making body and is attended by delegations from across the globe.

This year’s virtual session, which holds from May 24 to June, would also be open to associate members, observers, invited representatives of the United Nations (UN), inter-governmental organisations and non-state actors.

WHO, in a statement, yesterday, said over the past year, cases of the virus rose 40-fold to 162 million globally, while the number of deaths increased as much as 11 times to more than 3.3 million.

It noted that the pandemic has hit all nations hard, but its impact had been harshest on vulnerable communities.

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Its Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, observed: “A crisis often brings out the best in people and organisations. From the WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan to our technical guidance, the Solidarity Trial, the UN Supply Chain Task Force, the OpenWHO.org learning platform and initiatives like the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, including its COVAX partnership and the Solidarity Response Fund, WHO has given countries effective and evidence-informed tools to prevent infections, save lives and maintain essential health services. I am especially proud of the incredible work that WHO staff have done all over the world in the past 17 months to support countries to put these tools to work.”

COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, abbreviated as COVAX, is a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to the jabs directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation or GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and global health agency.

But the pandemic is far from over and the global response is at a critical phase. Stark contrasts still undermine progress, with vaccine inequity being one of the most urgent issues, posing a threat to ending the pandemic and to global recovery – over 75 per cent of the doses have been administered in only 10 countries while the low-income have dispensed less than half a per cent of global vaccines.

Tedros added: “This year’s World Health Assembly will play a vital role in shaping the global health architecture of the future and strengthening WHO to fulfil its mission and mandate.”

The Assembly’s agenda would focus on the health-related Sustainable Development Goals and WHO’s Triple Billion targets of one billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage, one billion more better protected from health emergencies and one billion more enjoying better health and well-being.

WHO’s report would also be presented during the meeting. A high-level segment would hold on May 24 (10:00 -12:00 CEST) with participation from Heads of State and Government and special guests in addition to an address by the WHO Director-General.

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The Assembly’s two committees – Committee A, which deals with predominantly programme and budget matters and Committee B, which deals mainly with administrative, financial and legal matters – will then consider the individual agenda items.

Highlights include: Proposed programme budget 2022–2023; WHO’s work in Health Emergencies, the COVID-19 response, including mental health; preparedness for and response to the COVID-19 pandemic; Global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property; Global action on patient safety; WHO global strategy on health, environment and climate change; Non communicable diseases; Antimicrobial resistance; Immunisation Agenda 2030; Health in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; Global Strategic Directions for Nursing and Midwifery; Poliomyelitis; and WHO transformation.

Three reports on COVID-19 response will be presented at the Assembly: the Health Emergencies Programme’s Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC), the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and the Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations (2005) during the COVID-19 Response.

The Assembly will be webcast live with interpretation in the WHO ’s six official languages. Proceedings can be followed at: https://www.who.int/about/governance/world-health-assembly/seventy-fourth-world-health-assembly
Provisional agenda in six languages: https://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/WHA74/A74_1-en.pdf

Meanwhile, the WHO, yesterday, issued new guidance for research on genetically modified mosquitoes to fight malaria and other vector-borne diseases.

The new direction from WHO sets essential standards to inform future research and development on genetically modified mosquitoes, particularly in addressing issues relating to ethics, safety, affordability and effectiveness.

According to the WHO, malaria and other vector-borne diseases, including dengue and Zika, affect millions globally. More than 400,000 people die yearly from malaria alone.

It is believed that if proven safe, effective and affordable, genetically modified vector mosquitoes could be valuable new tools to fight these diseases and eliminate their enormous health, social and economic burden.

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The guidance framework for testing genetically modified mosquitoes, developed in partnership with TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, and the GeneConvene Global Collaborative, an initiative of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, describes best practices to ensure that the study and evaluation of genetically modified mosquitoes as public health tools is safe, ethical and rigorous.

Current strategies for limiting transmission of mosquito-borne diseases are only partially effective. New, complementary approaches are needed to close the gaps in current vector control interventions, such as effective control of outdoor biting, and to provide alternatives to manage the increasing threat of insecticide resistance. Research suggests genetically modified mosquitoes could be powerful and cost-effective tools to supplement existing interventions.

Also, international organisations have come together to launch a new One Health High-Level Expert Panel to improve understanding of how diseases with the potential to trigger pandemics emerge and spread.

The panel will advise four international organizations – the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO); the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and the WHO – on the development of a long-term global plan of action to avert outbreaks of diseases like H5N1 avian influenza; Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS); Ebola; Zika, and, possibly, COVID-19. Three quarters of all emerging infectious diseases originate in animals.

It will operate under the One Health Approach, which recognises the links between the health of people, animals, and the environment and highlights the need for specialists in multiple sectors to address any health threats and prevent disruption to agri-food systems.

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Key first steps will include systematic analyses of scientific knowledge about the factors that lead to transmission of a disease from animal to human and vice versa; development of risk assessment and surveillance frameworks; identification of capacity gaps as well as agreement on good practices to prevent and prepare for zoonotic outbreaks.

The panel will consider the impact of human activity on the environment and wildlife habitats. Critical areas will include food production and distribution; urbanization and infrastructure development; international travel and trade; activities that lead to biodiversity loss and climate change; and those that put increased pressure on the natural resource base – all of which can lead to the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

The panel will guide development of a dynamic new research agenda and draw up evidence-based recommendations for global, regional, national and local action.

Ghebreyesus said: “Human health does not exist in a vacuum, and nor can our efforts to protect and promote it. The close links between human, animal and environmental health demand close collaboration, communication and coordination between the relevant sectors. The High-Level Expert Panel is a much-needed initiative to transform One Health from a concept to concrete policies that safeguard the health of the world’s people.”

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