WHO envoy: world 'not even half way' to winning Covid race

Carl Bildt promotes drive to get 70 per cent of global population vaccinated within next year

A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine booster in Derby, England. A WHO official has issued a warning that there is still 'a long way to go' in the fight to keep the virus under control. PA
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The World Health Organisation’s special envoy to the Access to Covid Tools Accelerator, or ACT Accelerator, has given a warning that there is still “a long way to go” in the fight to keep the Covid-19 virus under control, despite the pace of some vaccination campaigns.

Carl Bildt, co-chairman of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Swedish prime minister, told The National he supported the goal to have 70 per cent of the global population inoculated against Covid by this time next year, but said the road ahead would be difficult.

The warning comes as the global community is in a race against time to vaccinate populations before the emergence of any new Covid variants, which could potentially nullify the protection offered by vaccines.

“We are now sort of roughly at 30 per cent, which means that we are not even half way to what we would consider the necessary level in order to get the pandemic really under control,” Mr Bildt said.

He acknowledged that the emergence of the Delta variant and any other potential mutations in the future might mean the figure would have to be pushed up to a higher vaccination rate.

“At the moment, 70 per cent is what we are aiming at.”

According to the latest data, the UAE is a world leader on the vaccine front, with 83 per cent of its citizens fully vaccinated. The UK has given 65.9 per cent of its population two doses.

While many world leaders are hailing the success of their own programmes, Mr Bildt warned against the dangers of nations omitting themselves from the bigger picture. He said no nation could claim watertight protection against Covid if there were huge numbers of unvaccinated populations in other countries.

Referring to low vaccination rates in medium and lower-income countries, he said “until we get them covered as well we will still be at risk, even in the UAE or London”, as he stressed there was a “long way to go” in the battle against the virus.

“We have faced somewhat of an uphill struggle getting rid of all the trade restrictions but we are doing better on that at the moment, expanding vaccine production, also a fairly impressive effort, but the distribution of vaccines is of course highly unequal between the different parts of the world and that is creating increasing difficulties,” Mr Bildt said.

People receiving Covid 19 vaccine shots at the Ajman Society of Social & Cultural Development in Ajman, UAE.  Pawan Singh/The National.

Despite his warning, he declined to be drawn into criticism of nations which have been accused of vaccine nationalism and hoarding injections instead of donating them to poorer nations.

He said it was entirely understandable for India to temporarily block exports of vaccines during the height of its second wave earlier this year. The move dealt a major blow to dozens of nations who had given contracts to one of the world’s biggest vaccine producers.

Mr Bildt said while the argument could be made for booster jabs for older and vulnerable people in countries that have enough vaccines, any leftover doses thereafter would be “far better spent in other countries”.

“As much as the excess as possible should be going to the countries in general that have lower vaccine rates,” he added.

The UK government’s plan to shoot a third dose into the arms of millions of Britons has been deemed “unnecessary” by Prof Sarah Gilbert, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

ACT Accelerator comprises a global collaboration of leading public health agencies working in tandem with governments, civil society and industry to speed up the development and equitable delivery of coronavirus tests, treatments and jabs.

An elderly man receives a Covid booster vaccine at Croydon University Hospital, south London, after the introduction of the booster scheme in September. PA

The global partnership has prompted the US and the EU take the lead in the fight to protect people against the virus by establishing a transatlantic task force to work towards vaccination objectives. It comprises the US and the 27 nations of the European trading bloc.

Despite the Biden administration’s eagerness to be at the helm with such efforts, authorities in the US are struggling to get many people to accept a vaccine.

According to the latest figures, 55 per cent of American citizens have received two doses.

President Joe Biden last month warned the unvaccinated his “patience is wearing thin”. The introduction of a vaccine mandate for federal workers, which has resulted in many people losing their jobs, has split opinion across the country.

Mr Bildt declined to offer his opinion on whether vaccine mandates were justifiable. “That’s up to the different countries”, he said.

He also said any reluctance to take vaccines was unlikely to shift if the WHO recommended vaccine passports.

“I don’t think any recommendation from the WHO would help the problems that are being had for example in America at the moment,” he said.

A man in his 60s receives a booster vaccine in New York. The US is struggling to raise its vaccination rate amid widespread scepticism over Covid-19 shots.  AP

“There’s an abundance of studies available that can sort of alleviate the suspicion that is there”, he said. The antidote for scepticism, he said, was simply “information, information, information”.

Some women have voiced concern over taking the Covid vaccine after reports of disruption to menstruation among those who had been inoculated.

Last month a leading immunologist at Imperial College London said any changes to women’s periods should be investigated to prevent misinformation.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Dr Victoria Male called for studies after more than 30,000 women reported disruption to their menstruation cycles.

Mr Bildt said that numerous studies had been carried out and had found only “extremely limited” cases of side effects.

He said there had never in the history of the world been so many people vaccinated in such a short space of time.

“We have more than five billion people vaccinated and that’s been going on now for more than a year so there’s a huge body of evidence available and had there been anything really serious, it should have been detected.”

Updated: November 22, 2021, 9:01 AM