WHO emphasizes the importance of global political consensus for the fair and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
1. WHO Releases Guidelines For Effective Fabric Masks Against COVID-19
While surgical masks and N-95 respirators slowly become more available for healthcare workers, many individuals still create their own fabric masks. To help, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines surrounding the composition of these fabric masks to make them effective against the coronavirus and how to wash and maintain uncontaminated facial coverings.
Based on academic research, Dr. Tedros Abhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, advises that fabric masks should consist of at least three layers of different materials.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO Technical Lead of the COVID-19 response, says that in a fabric mask of three layers, “the inner layer should be an absorbent material, like cotton, and the middle layer should be a nonwoven material, such as polypropylene, which acts as the filter. The outer layer should be a nonabsorbent material, such as a polyester or polyester blend.”
“With those three layers and in that combination, that fabric can actually provide a mechanistic barrier that if someone were infected with COVID-19, it could prevent those droplets from going through and infecting someone else. And this is new novel research that WHO commissioned, that we didn’t have a month ago,” says Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove.
Furthermore, Dr. Tedros warns that people can potentially infect themselves if they use contaminated hands to adjust a mask or to repeatedly take it off and put it on, without cleaning hands in between.
“Masks can create a false sense of security, leading people to neglect measures, such as hand hygiene and physical distancing,” cautions WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros. Instead, “masks are only of benefit as part of a comprehensive approach in the fight against COVID-19” and must be used in addition to physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other public health measures.
2. WHO Works On An Initiative For Equitable Access To COVID-19 Vaccine
Many vaccines continue to undergo clinical trials and a few show tentative positive results in preventing COVID-19 infections. However, the successful release of an effective vaccine is only part of the equation. Who will be the first to get the vaccine? Will there be enough for everyone? These are some questions that many people ask as a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19 may be imminent, within the time span of the next couple of months to a year.
To commit to equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the WHO launched an initiative called “Access to COVID-19 Tools (act) Accelerator” on April 24, 2020.
“The first [objective] is to accelerate the development of a product, such as a vaccine; therapeutics; or diagnostics tool. And the second objective is, of course, to ensure access to equitable distribution, access to those who need it,” says Dr. Tedros of the WHO Act Accelerator initiative.
The European Commission held a successful pledging conference on May 4, 2020, and raised about 8 billion U.S. dollars to finance the act initiative. The pledging conference’s main goals were to strengthen a global collaboration for the equitable distribution of a vaccine and to fill immediate gaps in funding for vaccine research.
At the World Health Assembly and during the pledging conference, Dr. Tedros and many public health leaders emphasized that the “vaccine should be a global public good” and that political commitment by political leaders is very important to make sure that this happens. Global cooperation is crucial in order to continue vaccine funding and ensure the global distribution of the COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, says Dr. Tedros.
Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO, adds that in past outbreaks for diseases such as yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera, the WHO worked with the Member States and organizations such as UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders. Together, they have “maintained crucial global stockpiles of vaccines.” When the world succeeded in the equitable distribution of vaccines for such vicious diseases in the past, global cooperation for vaccines was not unusual. However, pandemic brings extra challenges.
“The challenge here [with COVID-19] is obviously much greater. But there are successful mechanisms for the fair allocation of non-governmental organizations and civil society as well and I do believe we have the basic architecture to achieve that. But, as the Director-General said, ultimately, this requires political consensus across the world, around the global good, and that’s fair and equitable distribution,” says WHO Executive Director Dr. Michael Ryan.
3. COVID-19 Increases Necessity of Primary Care Services As A Basic Human Right
While countries with dense populations face greater obstacles in terms of the high transmissibility of COVID-19 and future distribution of vaccines, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, who is the Chief Scientist of the WHO, sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to focus on primary health care for these regions. Under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services.” Following this article, the WHO views primary care as a basic human right and “part of the commitment to social justice and equity.”
Many countries, such as India, began the process of implementing stronger primary care services among its citizens. In September 2018, India implemented “Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana,” a part of the Indian government’s National Health Policy to provide primary health care services to the middle and lower classes, and most vulnerable populations.
According to Dr. Tedros, COVID-19 sped up the implementation of this health policy in India to provide primary health care to more citizens.
“With primary health care and community engagement, I think we can really turn the tide,” says WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros.