By Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields
GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – World leaders pledged on Friday to accelerate work on tests, drugs and vaccines against COVID-19 and to share them around the globe, but the United States did not take part in the launch of the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa were among those who joined a video conference to launch what the WHO had billed as a “landmark collaboration” to fight the pandemic.
The aim is to speed development of safe and effective drugs, tests and vaccines to prevent, diagnose and treat COVID-19, the lung disease caused be the novel coronavirus – and ensure equal access to treatments for rich and poor.
“We are facing a common threat which we can only defeat with a common approach,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said as the virtual meeting got under way.
“Experience has told us that even when tools are available they have not been equally available to all. We cannot allow that to happen.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the objective at a global pledging effort in early May would be to raise 7.5 billion euros ($8.10 billion) to ramp up work on prevention, diagnostics and treatment.
“This is a first step only, but more will be needed in the future,” von der Leyen told the conference.
Macron said: “We will continue now to mobilize all G7 and G20 countries so they get behind this initiative. And I hope we’ll manage to reconcile around this joint initiative both China and the U.S., because this is about saying: the fight against COVID-19 is a common human good and there should be no division in order to win this battle.”
Ramaphosa, chairman of the African Union, warned that the continent – with its generally poor standards of health care – was “extremely vulnerable to the ravages of this virus and is in need of support”.
Leaders from Asia, the Middle East and the Americas also joined the videoconference, but a spokesman for the U.S. mission in Geneva had earlier told Reuters that the United States would not be involved.
“There will be no U.S. official participation,” he said in an email reply to a query. “We look forward to learning more about this initiative in support of international cooperation to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as possible.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has lambasted the WHO as being slow to react to the outbreak and being “China-centric” and announced a suspension of funding.
Tedros has steadfastly defended the WHO’s handling of the pandemic and repeatedly committed to conducting a post-pandemic evaluation, as the agency does with all crises.
More than 2.7 million people have been infected with COVID-19 and nearly 190,000 have died from it since the new coronavirus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, according to a Reuters tally.
More than 100 potential COVID-19 vaccines are being developed, including six already in clinical trials, said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI vaccine alliance, a public-private partnership that leads immunization campaigns in poor countries.
“We need to ensure that there are enough vaccines for everyone, we are going to need global leadership to identify and prioritize vaccine candidates,” he told a separate Geneva news briefing before taking part in the formal WHO announcement.
Global manufacturing capacity must be ramped up ahead of choosing “a winner” vaccine, Berkley said, noting that GAVI and the World Bank were looking at the issue.
“We can’t have a repeat of what happened in 2009 – the H1N1 vaccine, when there was not enough supply for developing countries or when supply did come it came much later.”
Another important question was how well a vaccine would work in people most at risk from COVID-19, Berkley said.
“How well do they work in the elderly, are they single or multiple dose etc?” he said, noting that older people had weaker immune systems.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michael Shields in Zurich, Kate Kelland in London and Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay and Alex Richardson Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich.