World leaders – minus US, China – back WHO’s COVID-19 drive

The World Health Organization brought together leaders from around the world on Friday in an “unprecedented” alliance to make access to coronavirus drugs and vaccines quick and equitable worldwide, although the US and China were conspicuous in their absence.

“We are facing a common threat which we can only defeat with a common approach,” said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as he opened the teleconference.

“Countries, health partners, manufacturers, and the private sector must act together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody.”

The show of unity behind the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator included French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, along with leaders from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The US was not represented, with the snub coming less than two weeks after President Donald Trump withdrew US funding to the WHO, claiming the agency had mishandled the pandemic.

China also did not participate, and Macron said during the virtual meeting that all G7 and G20 nations should get behind the initiative as “the fight against COVID-19 is a common human good and there should be no division in order to win this battle.”

Von der Leyen said the aim is to raise €7.5 billion (around $8.1 billion) to inject into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of SARS-CoV-2, which is tracking towards 3 million confirmed cases worldwide with more than 200,000 deaths.

The fundraising will kick off on 4 May with a pledge drive, and may only be a first step as more money will likely be needed in future in a “rolling replenishment.”

She added that EU27 leaders had “tasked the Commission with shaping our collective response to the crisis”, a move which comes after the EU has been criticised for not doing enough to help some of its member states cope with the pandemic.

Earlier this month von der Leyen apologised to Italy – hit hardest among all EU countries – saying that in the early days of the crisis, “in the face of the need for a common European response, too many have thought only of their own home problems.”

Alongside the new initiative is a €540 billion rescue package for EU countries bearing the brunt of the pandemic like Italy and Spain, which would allow loans to be taken from the EU bailout mechanism.

The WHO said researchers from hundreds of institutions are already developing and testing vaccines, standardising assays and regulatory approaches on innovative trial designs and working out how to prioritise the most promising vaccine candidates.

As of 23 April there were six SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in clinical trials, with another 77 in preclinical development, according to the WHO.

Meanwhile, WHO has prequalified diagnostics for COVID-19 – with more in the pipeline – and is coordinating the global SOLIDARITY trial to assess the safety and efficacy of four therapeutics against the virus.

“No country and no organization can do this alone,” said Dr Tedros. “The ACT Accelerator brings together the combined power of several organizations to work with speed and scale.”

Commenting on the move, European drug industry group EFPIA said the sector is “working around the clock” to accelerate R&D into new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics.

“We stand in solidarity and unity with citizens, governments, health systems and key partners in research to tackle the coronavirus,” said EFPIA director general Nathalie Moll.

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