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Woman army officer in forefront of COVID-19 battle in Sierra Leone

“COVID-19 is a dynamic and fluid situation,” says Lieutenant Matilda Mattu Moiwo. “You can’t predict everything that will occur in advance.” 

Lt. Moiwo is a staff officer of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces. Her military training serves her well in the fight against COVID-19. 

As the National Emergency Medical Services Referral Coordinator in the capital city of Freetown, Lt. Moiwo has to juggle national ambulance services, clinicians at hospitals, treatment centers and isolation units, and psychosocial assistance for patients and their families. She also disseminates test results and updates a national database on COVID-19.

Lt. Moiwo inputs data on a daily basis related to the COVID-19 response in Sierra Leone. © NaCOVERC/Alpha Daramy

Lt. Moiwo remains level-headed despite the skyrocketing demands for her team since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the West African country in March 2020. 

She remembers one particular COVID-19 case, where a pregnant woman at full term needed a caesarean section. “For this woman, it was not just a matter of having a safe delivery. This was the very first delivery for a coronavirus patient in Sierra Leone. Health care workers at the isolation unit were worried. So was the patient.” 

It took an hour or more of managing the elements needed for a safe delivery, but in the end, the hard work paid off and the woman delivered a baby girl.  

Cases like these call for creative thinking, says Lt. Moiwo. “It is critical to get the right patients to the right places because we offer different treatment centers with different levels of care, depending on severity,” she says. 

United Nations

Building women’s leadership is part of government efforts to promote gender equality in all areas of life. Such moves include a new law on sexual offenses, the launch of one-stop centres on sexual and gender-based violence, and the government’s 2019 declaration of rape and sexual violence as a national emergency. 

All these efforts are supported by the UN Country Team in Sierra Leone. And, says UN Resident Coordinator, Babatunde Ahonsi, supporting gender equality also means supporting the fight against COVID-19. 

“COVID-19 is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” says Mr. Ahonsi. “If women are prevented from taking leadership positions, then we’re fighting the pandemic with one hand tied behind our back. When women are subjected to sexual violence, then there’s that much less energy and resources to advance public health.” 

The equation works both ways. Just as gender equality supports public health, public health can support gender equality—if proper attention is paid to it.

That’s why the UN Country Team works on both gender equality and COVID-19—and makes sure that the two go hand in hand. 

UNDP Sierra Leone/Mohamed Kanu
UNDP supported Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 response with infection prevention and control hygiene supplies.

For instance, Mr. Ahonsi led an effort to secure the donation of 100,000 face masks from China for the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation.  

UNICEF reached out to 50 health influencers, including women leaders, who advocated for the proper use of masks, handwashing, and physical distancing.

The World Health Organization provided technical support to the government and health facilities, which includes the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre, where Lt. Moiwo is a leader. 

“When we make progress in gender equality, we make progress in every area of human endeavor,” says the UN Resident Coordinator. 

Lt. Moiwo puts that notion into practice every day on the job. She believes that, by stepping up as a leader, she is helping dismantle discrimination against women.

Gender Equality and the UN

  • The UN says gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.
  • One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 5 on gender equality aims to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
  • The importance of protecting women’s rights has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic with a global increase in reported domestic and gender-based violence.

‘They all died on the same day’: a Benin doctor on her fight against COVID-19

A doctor in Benin has been telling the UN about the challenging conversations she has had with the relatives of patients who have died from COVID-19, and how she has used her long medical experience to effectively lead a team of health care workers.

“The most painful moment in managing this crisis was in June 2020 when I had three severe cases of COVID-19. They all died on the same day.”

© Hermès Amoussouvi

Under the supervision of Dr. Babio (centre), volunteers practice caring for COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Rokhiatou Babio is one of the few women in Benin to lead a medical team on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, work which is supported by the United Nations in the north-east of the West African country. She recounts the shocking experience on that sombre and cruel day, a month into her new job.

“One of the three patients practically died in my arms”.

She falls into a deep silence and then continues. “You have to deal with the relatives after the deaths. The hardest part for them was not being able to take the mortal remains of their loved ones with them. It is difficult to convince them, even with the support of a psychologist”. 

Dr. Babio is a general practitioner at the emergency department of the University Hospital of Borgou. She also supervises a team of 40 medical staff at the COVID-19 care centre of the Borgou Army Instruction Hospital, which admits coronavirus patients from five of Benin’s 12 departments – Atacora, Borgou, Alibori, Donga and Collines.

As an expert with a long experience of medical emergency and epidemic care, Dr. Babio has managed four health crises in her career. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, she says she was quickly able to inspire confidence in other “less experienced” team members.

“As soon as I took on this task, my goal was to save the lives of patients while protecting health care workers, most of whom had never managed an epidemic before. It was, therefore, necessary from the first days to establish a climate of confidence and make them want to manage COVID-19 patients,” she says.

© Aboudou Souleymane

Dr. Babio (left) and Dr. Amoussouvi prepare to make their ward rounds.

Dr. Babio divided her staff into three multi-disciplinary, teams made up of men and women. To get the best out of each of them, she listened to issues from all staff members, both professional and personal.

“Each colleague has my number and can contact me at any time to voice their concerns. This lowers staff stress levels and ensures good management of the epidemic”, she adds.

In Benin some people are surprised to see a woman at the helm of the emergency department, more so as the COVID-19 case management coordinator. But she says she’s the right person for the job.

“Since 2016, I have been managing epidemics of viral hemorrhagic fevers in Lassa and my competence has been recognized at the international level,” she says.

The doctor stresses that women are good at managing conflicts. “We are first and foremost mothers and, therefore, born to show empathy”.

Her colleague, Dr. Hermès Melvis Amoussouvi, a general practitioner, agrees. He acknowledges that leadership is “genderless”.

“A leader should be able to inspire both women and men. But it is important, and it is increasingly noticeable, that women realize their capacity to do as much or even better than men. Women have their own potential, and we must embrace it,” Dr. Amoussouvi said.

The UN country team in Benin is working closely with the government to facilitate women’s integration in all sectors of society, including in medicine.

United Nations

“We cannot build the future we want and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without the full participation of all stakeholders in society, especially women,” says Salvator Niyonzima, who, as Resident Coordinator, is the most senior UN official in Benin.

He emphasizes the significance of the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights in a broader social context. “Gender equality, enshrined in SDG 5, is often measured by the existence of a legal framework to promote, enforce and monitor the application of the principles around non-discrimination based on sex.”

Dr. Babio says she’s determined to do her best for her patients. “What a pleasure to see our patients getting better. I feel re-energized when they are grateful for our support. Yes, we save human lives”.

Her competence is well recognized by her peers and patients. “I take my hat off to this very dynamic team under the leadership of a rigorous and methodical woman,” explains Ms. Hermine Fatoumbi, a patient who has just recovered from COVID-19.

The UN COVID-19 response in Benin

  • Since the first case of COVID-19 was declared in Benin in March 2020, the centre managed by Dr. Babio has registered 117 coronavirus patients. By the end of February 2021, the country had confirmed 5,634 cases and reported 70 deaths.
  • Under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator, the UN agencies and other partners have been focusing their efforts on the fight against COVID-19, offering the government a wide range of support, including essential materials, medical equipment, finance, psychology and capacity building.
  • The support enables the health care team to effectively manage the treatment of COVID-19 cases including the more significant ones which may require complicated interventions.

WHO calls for urgent action to ramp up production of COVID-19 vaccines for all

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), was speaking at the end of a historic week which saw COVAX deliver more than 20 million vaccine doses to 20 countries. 

A further 31 countries will receive 14.4 million doses next week. 

Barriers and bottlenecks 

“This is encouraging progress, but the volume of doses being distributed through COVAX is still relatively small”, said Tedros, speaking during his biweekly briefing from Geneva. 

“One of our main priorities now is to increase the ambition of COVAX to help all countries end the pandemic.  This means urgent action to ramp up production.” 

Tedros said WHO and its COVAX partners will meet with government and industry representatives next week to identify “bottlenecks” and relevant solutions. 

“We currently face several barriers to increasing the speed and volume of production, from export bans to shortages of raw materials including glass, plastic and stoppers”, he told journalists. 

Waive intellectual property rights 

WHO is working on four approaches to the issue, including calling for waiving patent rights for vaccines. 

“Many countries with vaccine manufacturing capacity can start producing their own vaccines by waiving intellectual property rights, as provided for in the TRIPS agreement”, said Tedros, referring to the 1994 accord adopted by all 194 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

“Those provisions are there for use in emergencies. If now is not a time to use them, then when? This is unprecedented time, and WHO believes that this is a time to trigger that provision and waive patent rights.” 

Partnerships, technology transfers and training 

In the short-term, the UN agency is connecting companies that produce vaccines with others that have excess capacity to fill and finish them, citing the partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Merck, announced this week, as an example. 

“We need more partnerships like this, and we need them in all regions”, Tedros said.  

WHO is also advocating bilateral technology transfers, so that companies that own vaccine patents can license them to another company. 

“A good example of this approach is AstraZeneca, which has transferred the technology for its vaccine to SKBio in the Republic of Korea and the Serum Institute of India, which is producing AstraZeneca vaccines for COVAX”, Tedros said, though he cited lack of transparency as a main disadvantage of this approach. 

Coordinated technology transfer is a third option, whereby universities and manufacturers would license their vaccines to other companies through a global mechanism coordinated by WHO. This would also facilitate the training of staff at the receiving companies, and coordinate investments in infrastructure. 

Tedros said WHO had in fact used this approach during the H5N1 avian influenza pandemic in the mid-2000s.  

Wuhan mission report forthcoming 

Independent experts investigating the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19 will issue their final report later this month, the WHO briefing heard. 

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The findings from the mission to Wuhan – the Chinese city where the outbreak first began more than a year ago – together with a summary report, will be issued during the week of 14 March, said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, the team leader. 

“We decided to go for publishing and issuing both reports at the same time…because they follow each other and it makes sense to issue them together at the same time”, he said, responding to a journalist’s question. 

The experts travelled in January to Wuhan, where the new coronavirus first emerged at the end of 2019.

1,600 vaccinated in Guinea Ebola virus outbreak but more jabs needed: WHO

To date, 18 Ebola cases have been reported in the West African nation (14 confirmed and four deaths); only 30,000 Ebola vaccines are available, out of a global stock of half a million.

“We are using the ring vaccination,” said Dr Ibrahima Socé Fall, the Assistant Director-General of WHO responsible for emergency response, referring to the strategy that inhibits the spread of a disease by vaccinating only those most likely to be infected.

“We are vaccinating the contacts of cases, the contact of contacts, and their contacts. With this strategy we are able to control this type of outbreak. But we are going to need more vaccines,” Dr Fall told journalists in Geneva on Friday.

Limited stocks

“If the outbreak spreads to other countries, we have limited stocks” said the Director of Strategic Health Operations at WHO, Dr. Michel Yao.

He was speaking by videoconference from the town of Nzérékoré in Guinea, one of the epicentres of the outbreak, which is near the border with Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.

The last Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which started in 2014, quickly spread to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the time it was finally brought under control, it had become the deadliest Ebola outbreak since the virus was first detected in 1976, with some 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths. 

Borderline readiness

“There are six neighbouring countries to Guinea, and we conducted a self-assessment of readiness,” said  Gueye Abdou Salam, Regional Emergency Director of  WHO’s regional office for Africa, speaking from Brazzaville. “Two of the countries are not ready, and one country is on the borderline and there are three countries that are more or less ready.”

Having faced previous Ebola outbreaks has given health authorities a considerable advantage this time around, the experts agreed.

“It is important to learn the lessons from these outbreaks,” said Dr. Georges Alfred Ki-Zerbo, the WHO Representative in Guinea, who highlighted the need to secure the trust of local communities in all the areas where vaccination campaigns were planned.

“Where we launch the vaccination campaign in Gouecke, a few kilometres from there is the village of Wome. This is where a team of officials and responders were trapped and actually killed in the last outbreak in 2015. So, we need to take that into account when we engage with communities to make sure that we listen to them,” Dr. Ki-Zerbo said.

Deadly pathogens

There is broad consensus among health officials that acting quickly is a crucial factor in controlling the spread of Ebola, but that preventive measures and better preparedness are also needed to protect people from a broader range of pathogens.

Dr Fall maintained that the world will face an increasing number of health epidemics, especially as human habitats encroach on forest areas.

“We are increasingly in a situation in which we have to face multiple epidemics,” he said. “Countries must be enabled to respond to multiple epidemics, but especially through preventive measures.”

One current challenge is that the strong focus on the COVID-19 pandemic is making it more difficult to focus global attention on the tools needed to respond to any other emerging pathogens.

Mental health alert for 332 million children linked to COVID-19 lockdown policies: UNICEF

Based on new research, it said on Thursday that more than 330 million youngsters have been stuck at home for at least nine months, since the virus spread uncontrollably this time last year.

This has left them feeling isolated and anxious about their future, said UNICEF spokesperson James Elder: “Tens and tens of millions of youngsters have been left feeling isolated and afraid and lonely and anxious because of these enforced lockdowns and isolations that have become as a result of this pandemic.”

He said countries needed to emerge from this pandemic “with a better approach, a better approach to child and adolescent mental health, and that probably starts just by giving the issue the attention it deserves.”

Mental vulnerabilities

Half of all mental disorders develop before the age of 15, according to UNICEF and the majority of the 800,000 people who die by suicide annually, are under 18s.

The UN agency also said that the pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of countries worldwide.

UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that when day after day “you are away from your friends and distant loved ones, and perhaps even stuck at home with an abuser, the impact is significant.

“Many children are left feeling afraid, lonely, anxious, and concerned for their future. We must emerge from this pandemic with a better approach to child and adolescent mental health, and that starts by giving the issue the attention it deserves.”

For children experiencing violence, neglect or abuse at home, lockdowns have left many stranded with abusers. Children in vulnerable population groups – like those living and working on the streets, children with disabilities, and children living in conflict settings – risk having their mental health needs overlooked entirely.

According to WHO, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of countries worldwide, while the demand for mental health support is increasing.

UNICEF responding

To respond to growing needs, the agency has offered support to Governments and partners to prioritize services for children.

In Kazakhstan, this has led to the launch of a UNICEF platform for individual online counselling services, alongside distance training in schools for mental health specialists.

In China, the agency has also worked with social media company Kuaishou, to produce an online challenge to help reduce anxiety in children.

Later this year, UNICEF will dedicate its biennial flagship report on the state of the world’s children, to child and adolescent mental health, in a bid to increase awareness of the global challenge, exacerbated profoundly by the coronavirus.

Boost investment

“If we did not fully appreciate the urgency prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, surely we do now”, said Ms. Fore.

Countries must dramatically invest in expanded mental health services and support for young people and their caregivers in communities and schools. We also need scaled-up parenting programmes to ensure that children from vulnerable families get the support and protection they need at home.”

COVID-19 vaccines touchdown in Sudan and Rwanda

In a boost for equitable distribution in Africa, 800,000 doses of the AstraZeneca shots touched down in Khartoum, making Sudan the first country in the Middle East and North Africa region to receive the vaccine, according to a press release from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 

This delivery follows the arrival on 26 February, of 4.5 metric tons of syringes and safety boxes – funded by GAVI, the vaccine alliance, and delivered by UNICEF. 

Meanwhile, Rwanda also received 240,000 doses from the same manufacturer and anticipates 102,000 more shots from Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA, which is set to arrive on Wednesday, the UN agency said.  

A sigh of relief 

Both African nations will launch vaccine drive that will initially target essential health workers and vulnerable groups.  

“Our hope in recovery from the pandemic is through the vaccines”, said Abdullah Fadil, UNICEF Representative in Sudan, adding that they “have reduced the scourge of numerous infectious diseases, saved millions of lives and have effectively eliminated many life-threatening diseases” . 

Calling it an “historic moment”, Julianna Lindsey Children, UNICEF Representative in Rwanda, stressed that “women, and men all over the country can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Rwanda has taken its first steps towards recovering from the pandemic”. 

Immeasurable efforts 

“The World Health Organization is pleased to be part of this milestone for the COVID-19 response in Sudan”, said Nima Saeed Abid, WHO Representative in Sudan, adding that “vaccines work and vaccines should be for all”. 

She further underscored that “vaccinations only work as part of a comprehensive approach – they are only one tool in our arsenal against the virus and are most effective when combined with all other public health and personal prevention strategies”. 

COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), GAVI and the WHO, working in partnership with UNICEF, the World Bank, manufacturers and civil society organizations, and others.  

Untreated hearing loss threatens nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide – WHO 

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) report, launched ahead of World Hearing Day 2021 on Wednesday, says that in less than 30 years, nearly 2.5 billion people globally face the threat of hearing loss – at least 700 million of whom will require ear and hearing care as well as other rehabilitation services, unless action is taken. 

That figure would mark a significant increase from the current 430 million people worldwide who are experiencing “disabling hearing loss”.  

“Our ability to hear is precious. Untreated hearing loss can have a devastating impact on people’s ability to communicate, to study and to earn a living”, said WHO Director-General chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It can also impact on people’s mental health and their ability to sustain relationships”. 

Hearing investments 

The new report underlines the need to promptly step-up efforts to prevent and address hearing loss by investing and expanding access to ear and hearing care services. 

WHO has calculated that governments can expect a cost-effective return of nearly $16 for every dollar invested. 

The vast majority of those with disabling hearing loss, live in low and middle income countries where policies, trained professionals, infrastructure and basic awareness to address the issue, are commonly lacking. 

“Integrating ear and hearing care interventions within national health plans and delivering these through strengthened health systems, as part of universal health coverage, is essential to meet the needs of those at risk of or living with hearing loss”, said Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the WHO Department of Noncommunicable Diseases.  

Hearing loss 

In children, almost 60 per cent of hearing loss can be prevented through measures such as rubella and meningitis immunizations, improved maternal and neonatal care, and screening for and early management of otitis media – inflammatory diseases of the middle ear.  

In adults, noise control, safe listening and surveillance of medicines that cause a toxic effect on the ear or its nerve supply, together with thorough ear hygiene can help maintain good hearing and reduce the potential for hearing loss. 

Correcting the loss 

Identification is the first step in addressing hearing loss and related ear diseases. 

According to WHO, clinical screening at strategic points in life ensure that any loss of hearing and ear diseases can be identified as early as possible. 

Moreover, recent technological advances, including accurate and easy-to-use tools, can identify ear disease and hearing loss at any age, and screenings can be done during the COVID-19 pandemic and in underserved areas of the world. 

Untreated hearing loss can have a devastating impact on people’s ability to communicate, to study and to earn a living — WHO chief

Once diagnosed, early intervention is key. Medical treatment can cure most ear diseases and where hearing loss is irreversible, rehabilitation can prevent adverse consequences of hearing loss.  

A range of options are available, including technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, which, when accompanied by appropriate support services and rehabilitative therapy, are effective and can benefit children and adults alike. 

“To ensure that the benefit of these technological advances and solutions is equitably accessible to all, countries must adopt an integrated people-centered approach”, Dr. Bente Mikkelsen advised. 

The report also highlights that sign language and other sensory substitution, such as speech reading, are important options for many deaf people, as are hearing assistive technology and services, including captioning and sign language interpretation.

Equitable vaccine delivery plan needs more support to succeed: COVAX partners

Speaking after Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Colombia received their first round of AstraZeneca(AZ)/Oxford jabs, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the distribution of vaccines “has not been as equitable as we would have liked, but it has certainly been more equitable than it would have been otherwise”.

Challenges on the ground

The COVAX collective planned to deliver 11 million doses this week, Tedros continued, before cautioning that that “we still have many challenges to overcome, including the local production barriers relating to intellectual property”.

The WHO chief also noted that although vaccines were a powerful weapon against COVID-19, “they are not the only tool. Countries must continue using all the tools at their disposal including diagnostics, therapeutics and the full range of proven public health measures.”

COVAX partners the WHO, GAVI the Vaccine Alliance and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, aim to deliver just under two billion vaccines to around 190 countries and territories.

Record vaccines

Although as multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have been developed at “record pace”, and manufacturing scaled up to produce hundreds of millions of doses, CEPI Chief Executive Officer Dr Richard Hatchett noted that emerging variants risked complicating the task of ending the pandemic.

“This is a moment for celebration and we must remain firmly focused on delivering equitable access if we are to stop the endless cycle of lockdowns”, he insisted.

‘Job is not done’

“But the job is not done when it comes to developing vaccines against COVID-19; in parallel in the global rollout of vaccines, we must now redouble our R&D efforts to tackle the emerging variants of COVID-19.”

Up to the end of May, 237 million doses have been allocated to 142 participant countries in the COVAX scheme, it said in a statement.

These include Afghanistan, which has been allocated 2.6 million vaccines, Algeria (1.9 million), Bangladesh (10.9 million), Brazil (9.1 million), Indonesia (11.7 million) and North Korea (1.7 million).

When countries can expect to receive their quotas will be made clear at the end of the week, as this is dependent on factors including national regulatory requirements, the availability of supply and other criteria such as whether national deployment and vaccination plans have been approved.

In addition to this first round of allocations, an exceptional distribution of 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was previously announced for delivery by the end of March.

Funding call

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In the coming weeks and months, GAVI chief Seth Berkley said that the COVAX scheme would be hoping to get further funding to purchase even more vaccines for low and middle-income countries, with funding potentially secured for 1.8 billion doses this year.

 

Progress made on the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine also promised to boost the COVAX initiative, following its emergency use authorization in the United States and agreement to provide 500 million doses, Dr Berkley continued, while efforts were also continuing to secure a future purchase agreement with Novovax for 1.1 billion doses.

“It can’t be emphasized enough that we are attempting our largest and most complex vaccine rollout in history….we need to keep working to ensure the training, infrastructure and every other critical ingredient is in place to make every dose count with the goal of helping every country in the acute phase of the pandemic as soon as possible.”

‘We sink or we swim together’: 5 things you need to know about COVAX

It’s hoped two billon COVAX vaccines will be distributed in 2021., by © UNICEF/Ragul Krishnan

1) What is COVAX?

COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) is the vaccines element of the ACT-Accelerator programme, led by the WHO and international partners, to develop a set of tools to fight the virus. WHO says that the programme has supported the fastest, most coordinated, and successful global effort in history to fight a disease.

The aim is to distribute two billion doses, mostly to poorer countries, in 2021, and immunise 27 per cent of their citizens.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe”, has been a World Health Organization (WHO) mantra since the beginning of the global COVID-19 health crisis. However, richer countries had the resources to pre-order vast quantities of vaccines, ensuring that their populations were first in the queue when pharmaceutical companies got the green light to deliver doses, prompting UN human rights experts to warn against “vaccine hoarding”, and insist that vaccines must be available for all.

The AstraZeneca/Oxford is highly effective at stopping people developing COVID-19 symptoms. , by University of Oxford/John Cairns

2) How does it work?

Funded by richer countries and private donors, who have raised more than $2 billion, COVAX was launched in the early months of the pandemic, to ensure that people living in poorer countries would not be left out, when successful vaccines came onto the market. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in collaboration with the UN’s Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), is taking the lead in efforts to procure and supply doses.

Some 92 low and lower-income countries are purchasing vaccines with support from COVAX, and it is expected that the poorest citizens will be vaccinated free of charge. Around 80 higher-income economies have announced that they will finance the vaccines from their own budgets.

3) Which vaccines are being distributed through COVAX?

By the end of 2020, the WHO had lined up almost two billion doses of existing and candidate vaccines for use worldwide. Not all of those vaccines will be effective against the virus, but assembling such a huge vaccine reservoir meant that the UN health agency can say with confidence that COVAX will distribute enough doses to protect health and social care workers in all participating countries by mid-2021.

Some 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires ultra-cold chain storage are to be delivered to 18 countries in the first quarter of 2021, out of an agreed total of 40 million. A much larger rollout of around 336 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford jab will be dispatched to nearly all countries that have signed up to the COVAX scheme, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

4) Which countries are receiving the first COVAX doses?

The AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine is being manufactured under licence in India., by © UNICEF/Dhiraj Singh

On 24 February around 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, produced under licence in India, arrived in Ghana, welcomed by WHO as a historic step towards the goal of ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide. This shipment was swiftly followed by the arrival of more than half a million AstraZeneca/Oxford doses in Côte d’Ivoire.

These initial shipments are part of an initial 90 million doses due to be sent to Africa from the COVAX facility in the first half of 2021, supporting the inoculation of around three per cent of those most in need of protection, including health workers and other vulnerable groups.

By the end of 2021, it is hoped that, with the availability of more vaccines and increased production capacity, 600 million doses will have been rolled out, and some 20 per cent of the African population will have been vaccinated.

5) Why is it important?

WHOchief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The COVID-19 virus has taken a huge human toll. More than two million people worldwide have succumbed to the virus. Many more have been hospitalized, and suffered ongoing debilitating consequences. COVAX is intended to stem this tragic loss of life and chronic illness.

In addition, billions of lives have been disrupted by the travel restrictions, lockdowns and other measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus. Millions of jobs have been lost as the global economy has slowed down, and health services have been overwhelmed, making it harder for patients with non-COVID-related ailments to receive treatment.

It’s hoped that the vaccines provided by COVAX will contribute to reversing those damaging trends and return the world to normality, whatever that might look like.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghrebeyesus has pointed out that COVAX is not a charity effort: in a highly inter-connected global economy, effective vaccines, widely available in all countries, are the fastest way to end the pandemic, kick-start the global economy, and ensure a sustainable recovery. In the WHO chief’s words, “we sink or we swim together”.

 

UN’s nuclear watchdog agency will not be ‘bargaining chip’ in Iran nuclear deal

 After speaking to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors, Director General Rafael Grossi told a press conference that while the agency had opened a window of opportunity for diplomacy in Iran, it should not be put in the middle of negotiations between Iran, the United States and other nations over the deal.  

On 15 February, Iran announced that it would stop implementing “voluntary transparency measures” in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal, along with other arrangements in Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.  

The IAEA chief said to the 35-nation board that a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” had been agreed upon during his visit to the country last month that would enable the UN agency to “resume its full verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA if and when Iran resumes its implementation of those commitments”. 

Serious concern 

The IAEA chief also raised the alarm that nuclear activities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly known as North Korea, remains “a cause for serious concern”.  

“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable”, Mr. Grossi said, adding that the Vienna-based agency was intensifying its readiness “to play its essential role in verifying North Korea’s nuclear programme”. 

Reviewing nuclear safety 

The IAEA chief also drew attention to the agency’s Nuclear Safety Review 2021, which provides an overview of the agency’s activities and global trends in nuclear, radiation, transport and nuclear waste safety protcols, as well as in emergency preparedness and response.  

“This year, it also identifies the priorities in these areas, and provides an analytical overview of overall trends”, he said. 

Strengthen preparedness  

Moreover, the UN official flagged IAEA’s work in strengthening global preparedness for future pandemics through its Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative on diseases, that jump from animals to humans – the common path for viruses such as COVID-19. 

He said the initiative will help to reduce the chance that the next outbreak will wreak “the deadly destruction we are suffering today”. 

And Mr. Grossi informed the members that last week, IAEA signed revised arrangements with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to “help Member States respond to emerging challenges from climate change to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases”. 

Climate on the table 

As the Agency prepares for the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, Mr. Grossi said that he would personally deliver the message that “nuclear energy has a seat at the tables when the world’s future energy and climate policies are being discussed”.  

“Almost five years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, governments are becoming increasingly aware that they must shift from fossil fuels to nuclear and other low-carbon technologies, if they are to reach their net zero objectives”, Mr. Grossi said. 

The Director-General concluded by assuring that the agency was continuing its work on advancing gender equality, and invited Member States to join a panel discussion with some of the IAEA’s early women pioneers on 8 March, International Women’s Day.

Iran nuclear deal: a summary

    • What is the Iran nuclear deal? The 2015 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), sets out rules for monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, and paves the way for the lifting of UN sanctions.
    • Which countries are involved? Iran, the five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, US), plus Germany, together with the European Union.
    • What is the UN’s involvement? A UN Security Council resolution to ensure the enforcement of the JCPOA, and guarantee that the UN’s atomic energy agency, the IAEA, continues to have regular access to and more information on Iran’s nuclear programme, was adopted in 2015.
    • Why is the deal at risk? The current US Administration pulled out of the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions. In July 2019, Iran reportedly breached its uranium stockpile limit, and announced its intention to continue enriching uranium, posing a more serious proliferation risk.

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