Mr. Guterres celebrated rising immunization coverage around the world, particularly among high-risk groups, and the fact that countries have on average vaccinated about three-quarters of healthcare workers and the elderly.
COVID-19 responses are increasingly being integrated into routine health programs, and new antiviral drugs are about to become available.
However, gaps in coverage and protection remain, Mr Guterres said. All countries have minimal immunization coverage, and poorer countries have low immunization coverage. He also warned of a “shadow pandemic” of vaccine hesitancy and misinformation that needs to be fought.
The UN chief also called for testing rates to be drastically improved and for countries to be fully prepared for future pandemics. “Making progress in closing these gaps is what today is about,” said Mr. Guterres. “It is time to provide political impetus to complete work on COVID-19.”
UNICEF/Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi
“We have never been in a better position to end COVID-19”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN health agency, has had many devastating remarks to make since the pandemic began, but he was able to send a remarkably positive message at Friday’s event.
With so many people vaccinated and deaths from the virus reported at their lowest since the pandemic began, the international community, he said, “has never been in a better position to end COVID-19 as a global public health emergency.”
However, Tedros reiterated concerns raised by Mr Guterres, citing a report released Thursday by the WHO Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator Council that shows most low- and middle-income countries have virtually no access to new ones antivirals.
As the Accelerator makes strides, delivering nearly 1.5 billion vaccine doses and helping 68 new countries reach at least 40 percent immunization coverage, much more needs to be done, Tedros said: “We’re not there yet, but the end is is in sight”.
© UNICEF//Chris Farber
“Step by step we are making progress”
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has played a key role in ensuring vaccines get to those who need them, especially the most vulnerable.
In his opening remarks, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi reminded attendees at the event of some of their organization’s achievements in addressing the health crisis.
These include administering more than 12.4 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines; Funding and implementation of the largest ultra cold chain scale-up in history (UNICEF funded and shipped 800 ultra cold chain freezers to nearly 70 countries in 2021 alone); and shipping over 1.2 billion items of personal protective equipment to protect frontline workers, healthcare workers and others in 142 countries.
“We’re making progress step by step,” Ms Russell said, “but we need to keep the momentum going to protect the world from future surges and new variants.” Because as long as coverage continues to be unfair, the pandemic will continue and with it the serious risks it poses to children.”
The head of UNICEF drew the audience’s attention to some of the fallout from the pandemic on children, who she says are among the biggest victims as they have faced the devastating effects on their health, education and well-being.
Routine jabs crash
Routine vaccinations for other diseases have been significantly disrupted; Ms Russell pointed to data from WHO and UNICEF showing that 25 million children in 2021 would not have received a vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough – a marker of immunization coverage in general.
“This is the largest sustained decline in rates of routine childhood immunization in a generation,” she warned, “potentially undoing 30 years of progress if we don’t get back on track.”