In a pandemic, you have to grab the good news where you can. Some came by WHO’s headquarters this week, when Germany’s visiting Health Minister announced that the country would more than double its annual contribution to the Organization this year - for an unprecedented € 500 million.
Another positive development from Africa came this week as well. WHO and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) confirmed that the two-year epidemic of Ebola in eastern DRC - the deadliest and longest in the country’s history - was finally over.
Why this matters. The end of the deadly Ebola outbreak signals a public health success in one of the most complex, conflict-ridden regions of Africa. In Geneva, the German contribution to WHO’s 2020 budget plugs the major hole left by United States after President Donald Trump announced in May that the US would withdraw from the Organization over its alleged “pro-China” biases and mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ultimately, it means that WHO can focus on the big picture challenges associated with fighting the pandemic in months ahead.
“This is a clear sign of our dedication to the work of the WHO”, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in an impromptu press conference at WHO.
Spahn spoke to media Thursday morning just after a meeting with WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and French Minister of Solidarity and Health, Olivier Veran. Veran also pledged an additional €140 million to WHO - not small change either. In a clear rebuke to the recent unilateral US withdrawal, Spahn said:
“Isolated national answers to international problems are doomed to fail. We are convinced that in a pandemic, you have to react on a national level, but you have to coordinate the reaction internationally.”
Rosy images and reality. Of course, the rosy photo ops need to be set against the horizon of the hard work that lies ahead - both with regards to the pandemic battle as well as a battalion of other global health issues. As just one small example, while the Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC that claimed 2287 lives may be over, there has already been a flare-up of another strain of the deadly virus, transmitted by animals to humans, in DRC’s Equator province. This time, at least, there is a vaccine to nip Ebola in the bud. But a prolonged measles epidemic also continues to rage in DRC, and that has killed almost three times as many people, mainly children. The fact so many children are dying of vaccine-preventable measles reflects much deeper weaknesses in some African health systems. So just imagine the challenge involved in getting people access to a future Covid-19 vaccine - once it is finally developed.
Into the future. In anticipation of exactly that, WHO on Friday launched a massive drive to raise US $ 31.3 billion for a pooled fund to finance not only the R&D, but also the manufacture and broad distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics, drugs, and future vaccines.
The so called Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, involves most of the leading Geneva-based global health players, including: GAVI-the Vaccine Alliance; UNITAID; The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND). The Global Fund and FIND are leading a joint effort to scale up development and rollout of new generation of Covid-19 diagnostics that can provide accurate, rapid results, cheaply.
In the absence of a vaccine, the massive rollout of diagnostics is one of the only ways to avoid further lockdowns. As Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, observed:
“The real strategy towards containing the epidemic is through testing, tracing, isolation; and the starting point for that is a very rapid rollout of very large numbers of tests.
“To underscore the urgency for many lower middle income countries, lockdown is not sustainable. Households don’t have the wherewithal to continue without working, and governments don’t have the ability to compensate for lost income, coupled with the fact that clinical care facilities are extremely limited.”