COVID-19 pandemic the focus for second plenary of the Union World Conference

Conference News 22 Oct 2020

“We are not done with pandemics, whereas today we will be focusing on COVID-19 and its immediate effect, the world presents many additional pandemic effects” said Michael T. Osterholm from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy; University of Minnesota setting the scene for a challenging session about the big questions surrounding this pandemic.

Osterholm was clear that the world was not prepared, “To say we were caught flat-footed with COVID-19 is an understatement. The world was quite asleep to the pandemic at the beginning and underestimated the virus. This virus had a totally new virus epidemiology.”

He went on to explain that the global hope for a vaccine was not the immediate solution and that the best we can hope for a vaccine is early-mid 2021. He urged the world to be more prepared, saying that we must do whatever we can, whatever we need, to be better prepared.

Osterholm concluded by saying “today, the world is in a dire position, and must do whatever necessary to get through this pandemic”. He stressed that our short-term goals should be to prevent as many infections as possible until there is a vaccine, and then to maximise on the vaccine in terms of both its safety and availability, concluding by saying “we need to make certain we are much better prepared for the next pandemic, because it will happen.”

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove Head of the World Health Organization’s Emerging Diseases Unit spoke on their work to support countries to prepare and respond COVID-19, since they were first made aware of the pandemic in January 2020.

“One lesson from this pandemic has been that investment in health systems and preparedness pays off. Countries that have done well in dealing with this pandemic have done precisely that by leveraging existing capacities to respond more effectively to COVID-19.”

Van Kerkhove ended with the acknowledgement that there is no substitute for strong public health systems, whether it be for COVID-19, Asthma, COPD, cancer or tuberculosis (TB). People’s lives depend on it.

Continuing the exploration of the global response to COVID-19, Professor Madhukar Pai, McGill University, spoke on its impact on health care priorities and programmes.

Pai highlighted the detrimental impact COVID-19 has had on TB. With TB wards being converted into COVID-19 wards and looming anxiety that TB funds will be diverted to COVID and the risk of TB products stock running out due to manufacturing countries being badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a 30-50 percent decline in TB notifications, across many countries, Pai called for the need for damage control, considering the Stop TB partnership projection of an additional 6.3 million people developing TB and 1.4 million additional deaths over the next five years.

Pai asked whether there is anything from the COVID-19 response that can be used in the fight against TB? COVID-19 screening and tracking apps, real-time dashboards with country and city data, just some examples of technologies, which could be repurposed. With Pai asking, “Why can’t we have this for TB?”, “Why do we have to wait to see this data just once a year?”

Pai closed with a rousing question, “There has been a staggering about of R&D and investment in COVID-19 in the past 8 months…the amount of investment gone into COVID-19 in the past 6-8 months exceeds all of the investment which have gone into TB ever. How is this acceptable given the death toll of TB?”

Watch the plenary recording on demand

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