Opening statement, COVID-19 Press Conference, 21 July 2022

Submitted by on Thu, 21/07/2022 - 11:50

Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti

Good morning, good afternoon, bonjour and welcome to all the journalists joining this press conference.

Today we will be discussing the highly anticipated launch of funding for the rollout of the first-ever malaria vaccine to millions more children in Africa, and also share some positive news about a substantial increase in the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines on our continent.

There will also be a brief update about new confirmed Marburg cases in West Africa.

So, I am really pleased to be joined for this press conference by Mr Thabani Maphosa, who is Gavi’s Managing Director of Country Programmes, who has responsibility for the Vaccine Alliance’s operations in 73 countries. A very warm welcome, Thabani.

Then, also with us today is eminent malariologist, my colleague and sister Professor Rose Leke, who is the Emeritus Professor of Immunology and Parasitology at the University of Yaounde, and a Fellow of the Cameroon, African and World Academies of Science. 

A very warm welcome to you both.

The news of Gavi’s multi-million dollar funding to countries, to expand access to the world’s only malaria vaccine, marks a key advance in the fight against one of Africa’s most severe public health threats.

One child dies every minute in Africa from malaria. So, by the time we finish this one-hour press conference today, 60 more young lives will have been tragically cut short on the continent, with catastrophic consequences not only for families and communities, but also for national development.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa bear the brunt of the burden of malaria, accounting for more than nine out of 10 of the over 240 million global cases in 2020, along with most of the more than 600 000 reported deaths. 

This financial support from Gavi provides a landmark opportunity for countries to introduce, or further, the rollout of the malaria vaccine. It will initially benefit Ghana, Kenya and Malawi - the three countries that began piloting delivery of the vaccine in 2019 - before being expanded to other eligible endemic countries.

The pilot countries have vaccinated more than 1 300 000 children since vaccination began, and have reported a 30% drop in hospitalizations of children with severe malaria. 

They’ve also seen, after two years in the areas where the vaccine was piloted, an almost 10% reduction in child deaths in the age group that is eligible for the vaccine.

So, if delivered at scale, millions of new cases could be averted, and tens of thousands of lives saved every year.

We were encouraged to see that demand for the vaccine is high, even in the context of COVID-19, with the first dose reaching between 73% to over 90% coverage. 

This reflects that parents, caregivers and communities really know all too well the tragic toll that malaria takes, and are eager to protect their children from this deadly disease.

But for now, supplies remain limited, and achieving equitable access for all eligible children remains a priority.

To address the supply issues, WHO joined forces with relevant experts to create a framework to guide allocation decision making. This will ensure that children at highest risk, across endemic countries, are prioritized for vaccination.

So, lives are at stake, and I can’t stress enough the need for increased attention from donors, health leaders and manufacturers. WHO is fully committed to working with partners to find ways in which to boost manufacturing capacity, increase vaccine access, and ultimately change the trajectory of this devastating disease.

For COVID-19 vaccines, I am pleased to be able to share the news that uptake of doses increased by a significant 74% in June, compared to the previous month, breaking a three-month sustained decline.

This is the result of mass COVID-19 vaccination campaigns being conducted in 16 countries. With a further 19 such campaigns planned for July, we anticipate more improvements in terms of coverage going forward.

Coverage has reached about half, or 50% of vulnerable groups, and 21%, or just over one-fifth of Africa’s general population.

Among 14 countries in which fewer than 10% of populations had previously completed the primary series of vaccine doses, six have now surpassed this benchmark in July.

With tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases still being reported across the continent every week, this increase in vaccine coverage is extremely heartening evidence of a continued commitment by African countries to the vaccination agenda.

The fact that vaccination remains our most effective tool in the response to COVID-19 on the continent, and in the world, cannot be overemphasised. So, we encourage very much this continued effort, and we are working with other partners to support our Member States to continue to make progress.

Turning now to Marburg disease, this week Ghana has declared and confirmed its first-ever outbreak of the deadly virus, after a WHO Collaborating Laboratory corroborated earlier results. Ghana has reported two confirmed cases, both of which resulted in death. 

Marburg, which is in the same family of viruses as Ebola, is highly infectious, and can be fatal in a large percentage of cases. As yet, there are no vaccines, nor treatment, making immediate and decisive action to curb any potential spread critical.

This is only the second time that the zoonotic disease has been detected in West Africa, after a single case was confirmed in Guinea last September. Genomic sequence analysis of the Marburg virus from Ghana suggests that it is related to that earlier reported case in Guinea. However, more analysis is needed to understand what is behind this link, and the possible public health implications.

And we are very pleased to see that Ghana is responding swiftly and effectively, and our Country Team, as well as our emergency programme, is providing support, together with other partners.

A total of 108 contacts were identified, including health care workers and community members.  And fortunately, following 21 days of observation, all of these are currently well.

Neighbouring countries are on high alert, and we are supporting Ghana to bolster surveillance, testing and tracing, and to make preparations for the safe management of any new cases that may be identified. 

I’d like to conclude by again welcoming very warmly my fellow panelists and thanking journalists colleagues very much for your attention, and I look forward to our conversation today. 

Thank you.