Jul. 13, 2022

WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the COVID-19 media briefing– 12 July 2022


Good morning, good afternoon and good evening,

I am concerned that cases of COVID-19 continue to rise - putting further pressure on stretched health systems and health workers. I am also concerned about the increasing trend of deaths.

The Emergency Committee on COVID-19 met on Friday last week and concluded that the virus remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The Committee noted their concern about several interlinked challenges.

First, sub-variants of Omicron, like BA.4 and BA.5, continue to drive waves of cases, hospitalisation and death around the world.

Second, surveillance has reduced significantly – including testing and sequencing – making it increasingly difficult to assess the impact of variants on transmission, disease characteristics, and the effectiveness of counter-measures.

Third, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines are not being deployed effectively.

The virus is running freely and countries are not effectively managing the disease burden based on their capacity, in terms of both hospitalisation for acute cases and the expanding number of people with post covid-19 condition - often referred to as long-covid.

Finally, there is a major disconnect in COVID-19 risk perception between scientific communities, political leaders and the general public.

This is a dual challenge of communicating risk and building community trust in health tools and public health social measures like masking, distancing and ventilation.

The Committee made a series of recommendations with several that I want to focus on.

New waves of the virus demonstrate again that the COVID-19 is nowhere near over.

As the virus pushes at us, we must push back.

We’re in a much better position than at the beginning of the pandemic.

Of course, there’s been a lot of progress.

We have safe and effective tools that prevent infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

However, we should not take them for granted.

As G-20 finance ministers meet next week, it is critical that governments around the world finance WHO and the ACT-Accelerator to ensure the equitable distribution of health tools.

As transmission and hospitalisations rise, governments must also deploy tried and tested measures like masking, improved ventilation and test and treat protocols.

I urge governments to regularly review and adjust their COVID-19 response plans based on the current epidemiology and also the potential for new variants to appear.

Governments should also work to reverse the reduction in surveillance, testing and sequencing, and share anti-virals effectively.

Vaccines have saved millions of lives and it’s important for governments to focus on boosting those most at-risk communities, finding the unvaccinated so as to build up the wall of immunity toward the 70 percent vaccination target.

Planning and tackling COVID-19 should also go hand-in-hand with vaccinating for killer diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhea.

It’s not a question of either/or, it’s possible to do both.

And new vaccines, including HPV and malaria, should continue to be introduced.

Today, WHO released the first-ever report on vaccines in development to prevent infections caused by antimicrobial resistant bacterial pathogens.

The report examines some of the challenges facing vaccine development and proposes disruptive approaches to nurture innovation in a space that has been severely neglected.

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I am glad to be joined today by WHO’s Science Council, which I set up just over a year ago to provide advice on advances in science and technology that impact global health.

Led by Dr. Harold Varmus, the group just had their first in-person meeting and has been focused on genomics given its implications for public health and the challenges of scaling it up in low- and middle-income countries.

During COVID-19, genomics has been essential to detecting the virus initially and new variants subsequently, and also integral to the development of tests, treatments and vaccines.

As laid out in WHO’s new ten-year global genomic surveillance strategy, genomic surveillance covers disease detection, strengthening lab systems, developing tests, data sharing and analysis so that together new health tools can be developed and deployed.

Further, genomics has massive potential beyond pathogen surveillance, for human health.

It is timely for countries to invest in infrastructure and human resources in this area

To tell us more about the work of the Science Council, I’m happy to hand over to Dr. Harold Varmus.

Dr. Varmus, you have the floor.

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Dr. Harold Varmus speaks

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Thank you Dr. Varmus for that deep dive into the work of the Science Council and genomics.

I couldn’t agree more about the importance of scaling up genomic sequencing capacity globally and also ensuring that enough bio-analysts are trained to act on the sequencing.

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On Monkeypox, there are now 9,200 cases in 63 countries.

The Emergency Committee for monkeypox will reconvene next week and look at trends, how effective the counter-measures are and make recommendations for what countries and communities should do to tackle the outbreak.

In the meantime, the multi-pronged approach continues:

First, WHO is working closely with civil society and LGBTIQ+ community, especially to tackle the stigma around the virus and spread information so people can stay safe.

Second, WHO continues to work with countries and vaccine manufacturers to coordinate the sharing of vaccines, which are currently scarce.

Third, WHO continues to work with countries and experts to drive forward research and development.

On Sunday and Monday, the National Institute for Biomedical Research in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in collaboration with WHO, convened researchers and experts in trials worldwide to develop consensus on a global CORE protocol for the evaluation of treatments for monkeypox.

I again stress that we must work to stop onward transmission and advise governments to implement contact tracing to help track and stem the virus as well as to assist people in isolation.

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In Ghana there are currently two suspected cases of Marburg.

Ghana is currently dispatching samples to the Institute Pasteur of Dakar in Senegal for verification.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Health has set up precautionary contact tracing, case investigations and preparedness in health facilities with the support of WHO.

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Finally on Syria:

The renewal of the United Nations Security Council resolution on cross-border operations in northwest Syria is very good news for the nearly 4 and a-half million Syrians whose lives and health depend on this humanitarian access.

WHO and partners will continue to deliver life-saving supplies and healthcare to this vulnerable population, 80% of whom are women and children.

We thank the Security Council for protecting and ensuring this vital operation serving civilians and avoiding an almost complete cut of vital aid.