Africa: Director-General's Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19

A health official disinfects people arriving at Wilkins Hospital, in Harare, May 12, 2021.
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Geneva — Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

First of all, I would like to thank His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa for joining us today for this important announcement. Your Excellency, welcome and we look forward to your remarks in a few minutes.

Globally, newly-reported cases of COVID-19 have now declined for 8 weeks in a row, and deaths have declined for 7 weeks in a row.

This is good news, but new infections and deaths remain high globally. Last week, more than 2.5 million cases and almost 64 thousand deaths were reported – that's 250 cases and six deaths every minute, that we know of. The rate of decline in most regions has slowed, and every region has countries that are seeing a rapid increase in cases and deaths.

In Africa, the number of cases and deaths increased by almost 40% in the past week, and in some countries the number of deaths tripled or quadrupled.

While a handful of countries have high vaccination rates and are now seeing lower numbers of hospitalisations and deaths, other countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia are now facing steep epidemics. These cases and deaths are largely avoidable.

There are several reasons for these increases, including the increased spread of variants of concern, more social mixing, ineffective use of public health and social measures and vaccine inequity. The inequitable access to vaccines has demonstrated that in a crisis, low-income countries cannot rely on vaccine-producing countries to supply their needs.

We have seen it before with HIV, when people in low- and middle-income countries couldn't access lifesaving antiretroviral treatment. We have seen it with diabetes, where insulin is priced high despite having been around for more than a century.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that relying on a few companies to supply global public goods is limiting, and dangerous. To boost manufacturing, WHO has continued to call for the sharing of know-how, technology and licenses, and the waiving of intellectual property rights. Enhancing local production of health products has been an area of focus for WHO for several years, but the pandemic has brought it into even sharper focus.

Just a few weeks ago, the World Health Assembly adopted a landmark resolution on strengthening local production of medicines and other health technologies to improve access.

And today, I joined the World Local Production Forum, which aims to strengthen production capacity where it exists, and to build it where it is lacking.

In April, WHO issued a call for expressions of interest to establish technology transfer hubs for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.

Tech-transfer hubs are training facilities where manufacturers from low- and lower-middle income countries can receive training in how to produce certain vaccines, and the relevant licenses to do so. mRNA technology has been in development for decades, and is the basis for at least two safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.

It's potentially easier to scale than other vaccine technologies and could be faster and easier to adapt to variants of concern. Following our call for expressions of interest, we received more than 50 proposals, about half of which were from companies or institutions interested in receiving technology, and half were interested in providing the technology, or acting as the training hub, or both.

Today I am delighted to announce that WHO is in discussions with a consortium of companies and institutions to establish a technology transfer hub in South Africa.

The consortium involves a company called Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, which will act as the hub both by manufacturing mRNA vaccines itself and by providing training to a second manufacturer called Biovac. In time, Afrigen could provide training to other manufacturers in Africa and beyond.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention will provide guidance through the Partnership for African Vaccines Manufacturing.

WHO is facilitating this effort by establishing the criteria for the technology transfer, assessing the applications, developing standards and providing ongoing support and training.

We are now in negotiations with several companies that have indicated interest in providing their mRNA technology to the hub. This selection will be based on how advanced the technology is, in terms of clinical efficacy data, and on the terms under which the company is willing to share its technology.

In the coming weeks, we will continue to assess proposals for other tech-transfer hubs for mRNA and other technology platforms.

It's important to emphasise that this is an important step that will yield results in the medium-term. In the short-term, we need to do everything possible to increase the equitable production and distribution of vaccines, through COVAX.

To say more about the South African hub, it's my great honour to be joined by His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. President Ramaphosa, thank you so much for joining us today. You have the floor.

[PRESIDENT RAMAPHOSA ADDRESSED THE MEDIA]

Thank you so much, Your Excellency President Ramaphosa. Thank you for your continental and global leadership, and thank you for leadership on the IP waiver. Today's announcement is a great step forward for South Africa, and for the world.

I hope this will be a key moment for increasing production capacity in Africa for COVID-19 vaccines, but also for future vaccines.

France has been a strong supporter of local production, and His Excellency President Emmanuel Macron has personally committed time and resources to work with WHO and our partners to achieve this goal.

President Macron could not be with us in person, but he has sent us this video message.

[PRESIDENT MACRON'S VIDEO MESSAGE WAS PLAYED]

My deep thanks to France and President Macron for their support. Merci beaucoup, Your Excellency.

WHO's primary focus remains supporting countries to suppress transmission, save lives and end this pandemic.

At the same time, we must all use this opportunity to prepare for the future, by building capacities for our children and their children.

Tarik, back to you.

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