Coronavirus: WHO boss warns pandemic won't be over in 2022 if rich countries keep 'vaccine hoarding'

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo credit: Getty Images/Reuters

The head of the World Health Organization says the COVID-19 "global nightmare" could be over by the end of 2022, but it will take rich countries ending their "me-first" approach to vaccines. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been Director-General of the WHO since 2017, says with "all the tools, the resources and the reasons" in place, ending the pandemic is simply a "matter of will".

"Will governments take tailored, consistent measures to curb transmission?" he wrote in a post on social networking site LinkedIn.

"Will they, along with pharmaceutical companies, prioritize vaccine deliveries to global initiatives, like COVAX and AVAT, to reach those most at risk? Will individuals take the steps needed to protect themselves and others, from getting vaccinated to sharing accurate information on the virus?

"If the right choices are taken, we can turn this pandemic around, and build on the gains made in 2021."

Since China notified the WHO of a mysterious new illness at the end of 2019, at least 5.4 million people have died of COVID-19. Millions of others are likely to have been left suffering the long-term effects of long COVID, which is estimated to impact about a third of all COVID-19 patients. 

Efforts to stamp out COVID-19 have failed - most countries opted to suppress, rather than try to eliminate the SARS-CoV-2 virus like they did with the original SARS nearly 20 years ago. That, combined with a global vaccine rollout which saw wealthy nations start their booster campaigns before people living in poor countries even had a chance to get vaccinated, led to new variants like Delta and Omicron emerging. 

"We are seeing some nations conduct blanket booster programmes at a time when only half of WHO’s member states have met the goal of immunizing 40 percent of their populations by the end of 2021 due to uneven global supply," said Dr Tedros. 

"This gap can also be seen in the fact that one year since the first vaccines started being injected into arms, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated."

The more people a virus can infect, the more likely it is to evolve in potentially dangerous ways. Delta is about twice as infectious as previous strains, and a bit deadlier, while Omicron is multiple times more contagious, and behind the huge wave of infection currently sweeping Europe and the UK. 

"Narrow nationalism, me-first approaches, vaccine hoarding and inequity: all these failures and more have powered the pandemic," said Dr Tedros. 

"The longer inequity continues, the greater the chance of this virus mutating into new variants that we can neither prevent nor predict, locking us into a cycle of continued loss, hardship and restrictions.

"But if we end inequity, we end the pandemic, and end the global nightmare we have all lived through."

He said recent efforts to supercharge COVAX are starting to pay off, with half of its 800 million doses shipped so far coming in the last three months. 

"As we enter 2022, projections show that we have the potential to vaccinate all adults globally, while also ensuring high-risk groups receive boosters. But for this to happen, sufficient vaccine supply will be critical, especially as we must prepare for future variants that could undermine our current health tools and may require new vaccines."

He called on pharmaceutical companies to share their technology with the world, putting an end to the pandemic ahead of profit, and set a goal of having 70 percent of the world vaccinated by mid-2022. He also said a "stronger global framework for global health security" is needed, and urged countries to invest more in primary health care "as the foundation of universal health coverage".

"I believe that if we can make progress on these goals, we will be gathering again, at the end of 2022, not to mark the end of a third year of pandemic, but to celebrate a return to pre-COVID norms, when we gathered with our families and communities to celebrate together and cherish each other’s company and love."