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Coronavirus: 'No-one is safe until everyone is safe,' says WHO director

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A medical staff takes a sample for a voluntary coronavirus disease test (COVID-19) at a test station near Bergen, Germany.
A medical staff takes a sample for a voluntary coronavirus disease test (COVID-19) at a test station near Bergen, Germany.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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COVID-19 has been one of the toughest logistical challenges ever faced, WHO Director Tedros Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on Tuesday, in which he focused on the need for international collaboration in the search of a vaccine.

In his statement he listed the challenges countries faced during the pandemic, spanning from broken supply chains for personal protective equipment due to the cancellation of flights, the closure of borders and the development and production of rapid testing for COVID-19.

Lessons from the past

Ghebreyesus emphasized the need to draw lessons from the past months.

He expressed that it is only natural for leaders to want to protect "their own people first. However, he repeatedly stressed, the biggest lesson is that the response to the pandemic "has to be collective." He noted that "this is not charity," but the best way to handle the pandemic is to protect the most vulnerable everywhere simultaneously.

"No one is safe until everyone is safe," Ghebreyesus insisted and called for international collaboration with regards to research, medicines and supply of necessary items, including future vaccines.

"It is critical that countries don't repeat the same mistakes," he said. "We need to prevent vaccine nationalism." This is the only way to ensure equitable access and fair allocation of a future vaccine.

Phase one of vaccine distribution

Ghebreyesus noted that the principal advisory group to WHO for vaccines and immunization will be advising on the allocation of a future vaccine, which will have to be distributed to all countries simultaneously.

This will be phase one of the vaccine distribution, which will also ensure that frontline workers and those in essential services will be prioritized.

Vulnerable groups, such as those above 65 years and those with medical pre-conditions will also receive the vaccine in the first phase.

Ghebreyesus urged to protect all high-risk people first considering "we are all so interconnected."

He added, "we do it best when we do it together."

Dr Mariangela Simao, Assistant Director-General said there are currently five vaccine candidates that are in phase three of a clinical trial. She also applauded the European Commission for pushing for a global initiative to pool resources around finding a global solution for a vaccine.

In response to recurring footage of big gatherings of people in Europe, China, the US and anywhere else, technical lead for COVID-19 Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said: "We shouldn't be putting people at fault for wanting to live their lives." But she urged for clear messaging that makes clear that young people are "not invincible to the virus."

New phase of the pandemic in Asia-Pacific

In an earlier virtual briefing, WHO's Western Pacific regional director Takeshi Kasai said the coronavirus cases in Asia-Pacific are now being driven by people under the age of 50 who may not know they are infected.

He warned of a "new phase" of the pandemic, saying that many of the infected have mild or no COVID-19 symptoms and risk infecting the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

“The epidemic is changing. People in their 20s, 30s and 40s are increasingly driving the threat,” Kasai said.

"Many are unaware they're infected with very mild symptoms or none at all.

"What we are observing is not simply a resurgence. I believe it's a signal that we've entered a new phase of the pandemic in the Asia-Pacific [region]."

WHO data on the current phase of the contagion showed around two-thirds of Japan's infections were among those aged under 40.

More than half of the caseloads in the Philippines and Australia were also in that age group.

“We must redouble efforts to stop the virus from moving into vulnerable communities,” Kasai said.

Some countries that had brought their outbreaks under control - such as New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea - have detected new clusters, forcing governments to reimpose painful lockdowns on cities and tighten social distancing rules.

But Kasai said the use of targeted interventions in the region was encouraging because it reduced the economic and social impact of containment measures and was more sustainable.

He warned, however, that the challenge will remain "as long as the virus is circulating and we don't have immunity to it".

Rising number of cases

More than six months after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the 14-day incidence rate across Europe is surging again.

Nineteen of the 31 countries monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control currently have a 14-day cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population exceeding 20.

Six of them — Belgium, France, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, and Sweden — have rates over 40 per 100,000 while Luxembourg and Spain have more than 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

In mid-July, only four EU member states had crude incidence rates of over 40.

Health officials across the EU and the WHO have stressed that the uptick in cases is particularly affecting young people who are letting their guards down as the northern hemisphere goes through its summer.

Multiple member states including France, Spain and Italy have extended their face masks requirement to crowded outdoor places while the UK has imposed multiple local lockdowns to stem the spread of the virus.

The EU/EEA and the UK have lost 179,660 lives to the pandemic.

Over 767,000 COVID-19 deaths and 21.5 million confirmed infections have been reported to WHO since the beginning of the outbreak.

The Americas have so far been the most heavily impacted. The region accounts for over half — 417,699 — of the global death toll, with the US recording more than 170,000 fatalities alone.