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WHO chief says vaccines alone won't end pandemic

WHO’s chief said reports of Moderna's experimental coronavirus vaccine were "encouraging news," but cautioned more will be needed to end the pandemic.

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization’s director-general said reports on Monday of drugmaker Moderna's experimental coronavirus vaccine provided "encouraging news," but cautioned that more concerted efforts beyond vaccines will be needed to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed Moderna's announcement its vaccine was 94.5% effective at preventing illness in a preliminary analysis, but said it will take a "full range of tools" such as tests, diagnostics and treatments to stop a virus that has infected 54.7 million people and killed 1.3 million people worldwide, more than 246,000 in the United States alone. Some 35 million have recovered.

"This is not the time for complacency," Tedros told a virtual press briefing. "This is a dangerous virus, which can attack every system in the body. Those countries that are letting the virus run unchecked are playing with fire."

Moderna's announcement surpassed expectations just a week after drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech revealed their experimental coronavirus vaccine appears to be 90% effective, giving the United States the possibility of two vaccines available on a limited basis by year's end. The news from both pharmaceutical companies made for hopeful headlines and sent stock markets around the world soaring.

But nations also must make investments in case finding, care and isolation, cluster investigations, adequate testing with rapid results, contact tracing and supported quarantine, Tedros emphasized, noting that cluster investigations and contract tracing are "part of the bedrock of a successful public health response" that is needed to prevent individual cases from becoming clusters, and clusters from turning into broader, community transmission.

Dr. Kate O’Brien, director of WHO's department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said the journey towards an effective vaccine is similar to building a base camp at Mount Everest.

"But the climb to the peak is really about delivering the vaccines," she told the news briefing. "And this can not be overemphasized — that the people who need to receive these vaccines, are the ones who really are the focus now."

She said the hard work of ensuring all nations can immunize their health workers is just getting underway.

"We don’t have strong programs for immunization of adults in many, many countries around the world. This is really going to have to lean on the programs for immunization that we have in every country around the world, but they have largely focused on infants, children and adolescents," said O'Brien, an American-Canadian pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases. "There’s an enormous amount of work to do, and resources that will be needed to actually deliver the vaccines."

'Act fast, act now, act decisively'

The news briefing was Tedros' first appearance since declaring at the start of the month that he would self-quarantine because of a contact who tested positive for the coronavirus. In keeping with WHO protocols, Tedros said, he worked from home but he did not get tested as he experienced no symptoms. The Associated Press reported it obtained an internal WHO email showing the U.N. health agency recorded 65 cases of coronavirus among staff at its Geneva headquarters.

Tedros, a politician and public health expert who headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, said there is "no excuse for inaction" among nations even if the news continues to be good about the extraordinary speed with which COVID-19 vaccines are being developed; vaccines more commonly take years, if not decades, to bring to fruition.

"My message is very clear: act fast, act now, act decisively. A laissez-faire attitude to the virus — not using the full range of tools available — leads to death, suffering and hurts livelihoods and economies," said Tedros. "It’s not a choice between lives or livelihoods. The quickest way to open up economies is to defeat the virus."

WHO has been cautioning for months that defeating the pandemic would require not only developing effective vaccines but also distributing them in an equitable manner. Edward Kelley, director of WHO's department of service delivery and safety, emphasized the importance of what must be done after vaccines are introduced.

"Last week, we had 60,000 deaths, we had 4 million new cases. We will have more of those weeks before the vaccine is out there," Kelley, an American public health expert, told the news briefing. "It’s not vaccines that save people, it’s vaccinations that will actually save people.

WHO's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, noted both the Moderna and Pfizer experimental two-dose vaccines appear to be highly effective using the brand-new messenger RNA or mRNA technology. Since neither were made with the coronavirus itself, no one could catch COVID-19 from them. Instead, they were made from a synthetic version of genetic code that can program someone's cells to produce copies of a fragment of the virus. When that happens, the fragment causes the immune system to go on the attack in case the real virus intrudes.

“But there are many, many questions still remaining about the duration of protection, the impact on severe disease, the impact on different sub-populations especially the elderly, as well as the adverse events beyond a certain period of time,” said Swaminathan, an Indian pediatrician and clinical scientist.

“We are looking at, at least the first half of the year, as being a period with very, very limited doses," she said. "Supplies are going to be limited, there are bilateral deals that many of the companies have done, so many of the doses have already been booked by some countries."