by Martina Fuchs
GENEVA, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- The topic of fighting against COVID-19 has dominated the Davos Agenda 2022 of the World Economic Forum (WEF), with participants across the world calling for vaccine equity and international cooperation to tame the spread of the virus.
The contagious Omicron variant and the reintroduction of national lockdowns, travel bans and quarantines around the world have "reinforced the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Geneva-based forum said on its website.
The five-day online event, kicking off on Monday, provides an opportunity for world leaders, chief executives and experts to reflect on the state of the world and shape solutions to critical challenges in the year ahead, the WEF said.
CALL FOR GLOBAL COOPERATION
In his special address at the WEF virtual session on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for solidarity and cooperation of the international community amid the global COVID-19 crisis, saying that "small boats may not survive a storm, but a giant ship is strong enough to brave a storm."
"We need to embrace cooperation and jointly defeat the pandemic. Confronted by the once-in-a-century pandemic, which will affect the future of humanity, the international community has fought a tenacious battle," Xi said.
"Facts have shown once again that amidst the raging torrents of a global crisis, countries are not riding separately in some 190 small boats, but are rather all in a giant ship on which our shared destiny hinges," he said.
Other leaders and experts at the event also stressed the importance of a unified international response to the ongoing pandemic.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his address on Monday that confronting the pandemic with equity and fairness is urgent, adding that "the last two years have demonstrated a simple but brutal truth -- if we leave anyone behind, we leave everyone behind."
Citing the World Health Organization (WHO)'s goal of vaccinating 40 percent of global population by the end of 2021 and 70 percent by the middle of 2022, Guterres said the world was nowhere even close.
Anthony Fauci, U.S. top infectious disease expert, said at the online event that "we don't want to get into the whack-a-mole approach towards every new variant, where you have to make a booster against a particular variant. You'll be chasing it forever."
"We should have had a much more coordinated global response, as I've said so many times. A global pandemic requires a global response, and we have to keep in mind the issue of equity all the time because you can't have a situation where you have virus circulating freely in one part of the world," Fauci said.
Addressing the "Meeting the Challenge of Vaccine Equity" panel on Tuesday, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said that "there is no way out of this pandemic right now without vaccines as the central strategic pillar."
"Being able to use those vaccines equitably is not only a fair and important humanitarian objective, it's the best way for us all to get out of the pandemic phase that we're currently in right now," Ryan said.
WHO, along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Vaccine Alliance GAVI, and partners, has led the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history with deliveries to 144 countries to date, said a UN press release, noting that the UN-backed COVAX mechanism has delivered 1 billion shots to poorer nations.
"We expect right now the next billion to take somewhere between four and five months versus a year, and so we're on our way," said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. "The new challenge here is making sure that every country is ready to receive them."
Berkley mentioned that countries have tripled their absorption capacity, while around 20 to 25 countries still have problems with absorption.
"We have been working to try to make sure that we can create bespoke plans for these countries to help them with their absorption capacity," Berkley said.
Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, a global vaccine partnership, said "the major thing that the world is going to need to do is to make vaccines available to everyone who wants it, which I think is an achievable goal in 2022 with the vaccine production that we have."
To ensure vaccine equity, Guterres called on countries and manufacturers to prioritize vaccine supply to the global program COVAX and to support the local production of tests, vaccines and treatments around the world.
He also asked pharmaceutical companies to stand in solidarity with developing countries by sharing licences, know-how and technology to find a way out of the pandemic.
ENDING TO PANDEMIC REMAINS UNKNOWN
Fauci said it was too early to tell whether the Omicron variant will herald a shift from the COVID-19 pandemic to an endemic, though Omicron is apparently not as pathogenic for example as Delta in spite of its high infectivity.
"That would only be the case if we don't get another variant that eludes the immune response to the prior variant," he said.
Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also said that it is too early to call the outbreak an endemic.
"Omicron will not be the last variant clearly with such high viral circulation as we are seeing now. There's a high probability that we will have another variant coming up. The question is, where and when, and will it be more dangerous or less dangerous than the current variant of concerns?" Wilder-Smith said.
"The world needs to be prepared for the worst-case scenario," she said. "Our healthcare systems are still overwhelmed. We still need to continue our public health and social measures."
"The key message remains: the vaccines still really work very well against severe disease. The primary objective is we want to avoid deaths and protect healthcare systems," she added.
"One of the most scarce commodities in this whole pandemic response has been trust. Trust between communities and governments, trust between countries, trust between manufacturers. Trust has been the missing magic that makes everything work in life," Ryan said. ■