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WHO adviser says G7 leaders must prioritize COVID-19 or face economic harm, unrest

OTTAWA — G7 leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, must make ending the COVID-19 pandemic a critical part of their summit in Germany, said a senior adviser to the director general at the World Health Organization. Dr.
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Bruce Aylward, Team Lead WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, speaks to the media about the COVID-19 after returning from China, during a press conference, at the World Health Organization, WHO, headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. A senior adviser to the director general at the World Health Organization says G7 leaders must make ending the COVID-19 pandemic by a critical part of their summit in Germany or they risk losing economic growth and unleashing more civil unrest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Keystone via AP, Salvatore Di Nolfi

OTTAWA — G7 leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, must make ending the COVID-19 pandemic a critical part of their summit in Germany, said a senior adviser to the director general at the World Health Organization.

Dr. Bruce Aylward said failing to keep COVID-19 at the top of the agenda risks further economic harm and unleashing more civil unrest.

Aylward is a Canadian infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist who has worked for WHO since 1992. In an interview, he said if getting control of the pandemic by investing in vaccines and treatments for all countries isn't important to the G7, it won't be important to anyone.

"The first thing the G7 has to say is, 'We have an opportunity to beat this pandemic, we need to turn the burners on now,'" Aylward said.

That includes funding investments in vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 and, when the updated vaccines are released later this year, not repeating the 2021 cycle in which rich countries snapped up all the initial doses.

The leaders of the world's leading economies are in the midst of their annual summit where the Russian invasion in Ukraine and food insecurity are the top issues.

But Aylward said the pandemic is forgotten at the peril of all nations. Economic growth is being hindered by supply chain issues linked not just to the Russian war in Ukraine, but also to ongoing COVID-19 impacts.

And the civil unrest unleashed in wealthy countries — including the anti-COVID-19 restriction convoys that paralyzed downtown Ottawa and multiple border crossings earlier this year — will only get worse if the economy and inflation aren't stabilized, he said.

The World Health Organization was aiming for 70 per cent of the world's population to be vaccinated by now, but more than 130 countries and territories are below that goal, and in Africa, fewer than one in five people have been fully vaccinated and fewer thanone in 100 have had a booster dose.

Aylward said initially less wealthy countries couldn't get the needed doses, but that's not the issue anymore. Now it's overcoming vaccine hesitancy, a problem he said has been worsened by the actions of people in wealthy nations.

"We had this window of opportunity when the low-income countries were really worried about this disease and they would have vaccinated, you know, gangbusters with the (global) north," Aylward said.

But then the rich nations hoarded doses for themselves, and then made available initially only doses of viral-vector vaccines like Oxford-AstraZeneca, which countries like Canada decided it didn't want.

There were also conspiracy theories arising about mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that had no basis in truth but have been exported around the world, said Aylward.

"So they've made it incredibly hard for political leaders in low-income countries to get coverage up," he said. "It's a grind."

The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, or ACT-A, is a global collaboration launched in April 2020 to generate the financing needed to get the diagnostics, treatments and vaccines needed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

New vaccines able to better protect against current variants of the virus behind COVID-19 will soon be available, and the wealthy countries cannot repeat the fiasco of 2021, said Aylward.

But Oxfam and the People's Vaccine Alliance over the weekend said it appears more than half the doses of the next round of vaccines have already been reserved by the same countries that hoarded the first time.

Canada has contracts to get 35 million doses of Moderna and as many as 65 million doses of Pfizer in 2022.

There is also a huge need in lower-income countries for antivirals and tests, areas Aylward said were the least funded in the first year of the program.

ACT-A is asking 55 high and higher-middle income countries to jointly contribute nearly $17 billion this year. More than a third is to be allocated to vaccines, about one-quarter to testing and diagnostics, one-sixth to therapeutics including antiviral medicines and the rest to health systems.

Last year, only six of those countries, including Canada, met or exceeded what WHO determined to be their fair share of contributions, largely based on the size of economies. Germany is the only other G7 country among the six.

Both Germany and Canada have said they will meet their fair share in 2022 as well. Trudeau said last month Canada would commit $732 million to ACT-A this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press