LONDON – The World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global collaboration to accelerate development and production of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, with leaders of countries around the world appearing live to pledge their support.

With more than 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection and 175,694 deaths, there is an urgent need for cooperation in developing treatments and ensuring everyone can get access, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general. “Countries, health partners, manufacturers and the private sector must work together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody,” he said.

As part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator effort, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is to front a pledging event on May 4, with the aim of raising €7.5 billion (US$8 billion) to ramp up work on prevention, diagnostics and treatment.

That is “a first step,” said von der Leyen. “More is needed in future. We need to develop a vaccine, produce it, and make it available in every corner of the world,” she said. “This is a universal common good.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed vaccine development is public health good and there must be equitable access. “The May 4 event will be extremely important,” she said. “We need more financial resources.”

Building on that, the U.K. government is to host a vaccines donor pledging conference on June 3-4, in a bid to raise at least $7.4 billion. There is a need to “galvanize development” and “ensure equal access,” said Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, who currently is standing in for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from a serious COVID-19 infection.

“We need other tools, but you will have heard it said that without a vaccine, we will never defeat this pandemic. This is likely true,” said Seth Berkeley, director general of GAVI, the vaccine alliance. “What this means is that we need to devise and deliver a vaccine program to get billions of doses out at a speed and scale never before contemplated, let alone achieved: the most rapid vaccine deployment in history,” Berkeley said.

Since the start of the pandemic in January, WHO has been working with researchers from hundreds of institutions around the world, supporting the development and testing of vaccines, standardizing assays and regulatory approaches on adaptive trial designs, and defining criteria to prioritize vaccine candidates.

Now the challenge is to speed up and harmonize processes to ensure that once products are deemed safe and effective, billions of people in the world who need them get access, Ghebreyesus said. “Past experience, in the early days of HIV treatment, for example, and in the deployment of vaccines against the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, shows that even when tools are available, they have not been equally available to all,” he said.

Entire world at risk

The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator is backed by the G7 and G20 countries, but notable in their absence at the teleconference were any representatives of the Chinese or U.S. governments. Adding his support, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “I hope both China and the U.S. will be in this together – there should not be any division.”

A common theme in the statements of world leaders speaking at the teleconference was the belief that as long as COVID-19 threatens any country, the entire world is at risk. Given that, every effort must be made to avoid mistakes of the past by ensuring protection is available to all, not just those with the means to afford it, they all agreed.

Heads of state also used the event as an opportunity to express thanks for the work that Ghebreyesus is doing in coordinating the global response to the pandemic.

That very public show of support came after U.S. President Donald Trump claimed earlier this month that WHO is “severely mismanaging” the pandemic and “covering up” the spread of the coronavirus. President Trump said the U.S. would halt funding of WHO, pending a review.

Coinciding with the WHO Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator event on April 24, more than 1,000 health care-related organizations and individual scientists in the U.S. wrote a letter to President Trump calling on him to reverse his decision, saying the U.S. “cannot rid this insidious virus from the country, nor around the world,” without WHO.

Andrew Witty, WHO special envoy

WHO is the only organization with the technical capacity and global mandate to support the response in all countries, the signatories say. They list initiatives taken by WHO, including the design of a global R&D blueprint, preparation of technical guidance for front-line health care staff and the organization and funding of the Solidarity clinical trial, which is testing four potential therapies in patients in 90 countries.

It is “without question” that the work WHO has done has been vital to slowing the spread of the virus, “ultimately saving lives in the U.S. and around the world,” the letter says.

Acting as WHO special envoy on the global effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines will be Andrew Witty, former CEO of Glaxosmithkline plc. He will be overseeing the WHO’s proposed Solidarity vaccines trial, a large, international randomized study that will enable the concurrent evaluation of the benefits and risks of any of the 70 candidate vaccines that are in the works, within three to six months of them being available for testing.

Witty told the teleconference audience he will build on what has been done to date, avoiding duplication and catalyzing existing research. “Please count on me for open-minded, energetic support and collaboration,” he said.

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