World ‘can learn to live with’ Coronavirus if vaccine not found, says WHO official

Speaking to a parliamentary committee, senior World Health Organization official Mike Ryan said that even if a vaccine is found, it may take a long time to roll out.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

03 Jun 2020

Dr Ryan, Executive Director with the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, was appearing via video link to take part in a debate by the European Parliament’s Development Committee on the spread of the Coronavirus in Africa and other developing countries.

He told MEPs, “Yes, we can learn to live with this virus even without a vaccine ever being available. But to do this you have to look at the experience of others and learn from what they are doing. No one, single thing can stop this. Rather, it will take a lot of different things together.”

Ryan admitted that access to any vaccine and the “equitable distribution” of a vaccine are both key issues, adding, “the best solution is a safe vaccine that is cheap so that all governments can afford it.”


He said that as and when a vaccine is found, there are some “some stark ethical choices to make.”

“Those most at risk are the old, people with underlying health conditions and frontline health workers. Should we protect those most at risk or do we go from one country to another country, rolling out the vaccine each one at a time?”

“We may have to spare the use of any vaccine, in other words, vaccinate those who are most at risk.”

“We may have to spare the use of any vaccine, in other words, vaccinate those who are most at risk”

He told MEPs, “Such targeted vaccination has successfully been done in tackling diseases like smallpox and Ebola in the Congo, where we have managed to preserve stocks and use vaccines in a very tactical way. But to do this you need good surveillance and the ability to test.”

Turning to the easing of constraints currently happening in several EU countries, Ryan said that those countries which have been most successful in containing the disease did not necessarily have travel bans such as that being introduced by the UK.

“There is no evidence of a direct association between travel bans and containing spread of the disease. What is needed, rather, is a combination of strategies which are implemented in a clear and coherent fashion.”

He noted that “many African countries have not had lockdowns, adding, “they have been successful by just detecting cases, going after the disease and, crucially, breaking the chain of transmission with measures such as quarantine and testing.”

“Surveillance in Africa has also improved over the years. This could be a message for Europe as it emerges from lockdown.”

“EU countries have a lot to learn from each other on this. They have to look at what has worked elsewhere and act on this.”

He praised the EU for “investing heavily” and committing some €20bn to dealing with the virus in developing countries.

“It is up to the EU to decide how this is spent. But I can assure you that the EU funds to WHO will be spent carefully with a focus on outcome, delivery and accountability.”

Asked why the number of cases in Africa was relatively low, he said, “I am actually reticent to say it is low because it is actually on the rise in some countries. It could still take off very quickly, but age could be a factor because only 10 percent of cases in Africa involve people over the age of 60 and Africa has a much younger population than Europe.”

“This could be one reason we have seen a relatively low number of deaths in Africa. But if the virus reaches under-nourished kids and people in refugee camps, well, all bets are off.”

“That is why we must shield such people now because this disease can spread explosively.”

“EU countries have a lot to learn from each other on this. They have to look at what has worked elsewhere and act on this”

On the issue of funding for WHO and President Trump’s decision to withdraw US support for the organisation, Ryan said, “What has been proposed [by the US] is not an easy thing for us but we work very closely with US which has superb technical and scientific institutions.”

“It is a very important partner for WHO in global aid and the fight against infectious disease and I look forward to working very closely with them in the future.”

He voiced “concern” that US withdrawal could affect aid to places like Yemen and Syria, where “it could impact on the delivery of services.”

He said, “I dearly hope we can move forward with the US, which is a friend to global health, and I trust that, with dialogue and good communications, this continues.”

Ryan also admitted that there had been “gross underinvestment in health services in low income countries and that the virus had “highlighted the cracks” in such provision.

Polish ECR member Beata Kempa said that while the virus had “not spread in Africa as quickly” as Europe, she was concerned this did not apply to Georgia and Lebanon, “both home to many Syrian refugees, including newborn babies.”

She said, “These are stateless people receiving no aid and grappling already with a very difficult situation.”

She added, “There could also be a second wave but we cannot allow this and a second lockdown to happen because the consequences will be devastating in Europe and worldwide.”

Spanish GUE MEP Miguel Urban said, “No is safe until everyone is safe and that means a vaccine.”

He said his group had called for any limitations on access to a vaccine to be suspended, adding, “Health services are universal and should be guaranteed to all.”

German Socialist Norbert Neuser said, “The WHO has done a pretty good job on this and I don’t agree with what Trump has said.”

He praised Africa for its success in combating the spread, saying, “Two African countries did virus testing at the very start and now nearly all in Africa are doing it.”

Like other members he wondered why Coronavirus figures in Africa are relatively low, suggesting it may be because there is “less mobility” compared with Europe.

“Or maybe it is the weather conditions which are keeping the virus at bay. Another reason is age: African people on average are much younger than in Europe.”

“Numbers are low in Nigeria and Senegal where the authorities want to relax lockdown measures for socio-economic reasons. I actually think people in Africa are more afraid of going hungry than the virus.”

He added, “We need studies to clarify how the virus can be tackled and what conditions affect its spread. We can then tailor and adapt measures accordingly.”

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