Latest update on the pandemic and preparations for COVID-19 vaccine deployment

Statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe3 December 2020Globally over 63 million COVID-19 cases and more than 1.4 million deaths have been reported to WHO.

There have now been over 19 million cases and over 427 000 deaths reported in the WHO European Region, with over 4 million more cases in November alone.

Last week, for the third consecutive week, the number of new cases reported declined, this time by 13%.

Despite this reduction, the Region still accounts for 40% of new global cases and 50% of new global deaths, as almost half of the countries within the Region continue to show an increasing trend. In week 48 alone, over 35 000 new deaths were reported from across the Region.

Whilst we are seeing a slight decrease in the number of cases in western Europe, this does not mean the entire WHO European Region faces an improvement in the epidemiological situation. The resurgence is moving eastward with the hardest hit countries now in central and southern Europe.

These reports are of grave concern; a stark reminder of the fact that the vast majority of us remain susceptible to the virus. Seroprevalence surveys suggest that in most countries, less than 1 in 10 has been infected with the virus.

This is a time for responsible leadership. To those countries seeing a decline in transmission – use this time wisely. Consider scaling up the public health infrastructure and preparing for the next surge, ask what can be improved to help us manage better in the future.

The virus still has the potential to do enormous damage unless we do everything in our power to stop its spread.

And part of the solution will be vaccination.

Today I would like to share 3 messages on the forthcoming vaccines.

Firstly, and undoubtedly, the promise of vaccines is phenomenal, the reward is potentially game-changing. With more than 200 candidate COVID-19 vaccines under development the future looks brighter. That is why I welcome news of the interim results of several candidate vaccines in recent weeks. As of today, more than 50 candidate vaccines are in human trials. The more candidates we have, the more opportunities for success. Vaccines combined with other public health measures bring the end of an acute phase of the pandemic and the rebuilding of economies within reach. But this is only possible if we ensure that no one is left behind and all countries and communities can reap the benefits of access to this life-saving technology.

My second message, preparedness is key. To assure that we reap the full reward of those vaccines, we need to have plans in place. Taking immediate stock of the status of our preparedness, now, in advance of the arrival of vaccines, is absolutely essential. At WHO we are working with countries to strengthen their readiness for vaccine introduction, their cold chain capacity, vaccine safety monitoring, communication and community engagement.

With supply expected to be very limited in the initial stage of delivery, all countries must decide who should be vaccinated first to maximize the impact of limited doses in reducing the burden of disease in each country context. Our recommendations are that health and social care workers, adults over 60 years of age and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, should be prioritized for access to COVID-19 vaccines in the context of limited supply. We acknowledge that, depending on vaccine availability, disease epidemiology and the size and proportion of each priority group, countries may decide, during the initial stage of immunization, to prioritize more than one group at a time.

Thirdly, community acceptance and demand is pivotal to the success of any vaccination plan. Behavioural insights surveys conducted among several European countries in recent months indicate that up to half of people in some countries are unsure about vaccination against COVID-19. It’s not unusual to be concerned about vaccination. It’s understandable. This can be expected in the current circumstances in which much is still unknown about which vaccine or vaccines will eventually be licensed, when they will be available and potential side effects, if any.

I urge you to seek reliable information from trustworthy sources. Don’t be part of a misinformation infodemic. Vaccination saves lives; fear endangers them. All information and data from the clinical trials will be thoroughly assessed for quality, safety and efficacy by national regulatory authorities before a vaccine is licensed for use. Such established mechanisms have been in place for decades to ensure the quality and safety of vaccines used to protect children in Europe against diseases including polio, measles and diphtheria.

So, the promise of a vaccine is great but its full potential will not be realized without strong preparedness and community acceptance. But let us also be clear, the vaccine is not here today, not everyone will receive it when it arrives, therefore it’s imperative that we continue to practice basic protective behaviours (such as mask wearing).

We have seen progress made in Europe over the last number of weeks, with the application of measures which, however difficult, have reduced case transmission. We must remain vigilant to maintain this progress – to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our health workforce.

Thank you

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