The following is a transcript of an interview with Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 technical lead, that aired December 5, 2021 on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: The World Health Organization on Friday called the Omicron situation a fast and furious one. For more now we go to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologic- epidemiologist and COVID-19 Technical Lead for the W.H.O.. Good morning, Dr.
W.H.O. COVID-19 TECHNICAL LEADER DR. MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: Hi, MARGARET. Nice to be on your program again.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Nice to have you there from Geneva, I know there’s a little bit of a delay. Do you have any indication yet on whether Omicron causes more severe disease?
DR. VAN KERKOVE: So, our data that we have on severity of Omicron is coming in by the day. We do know that people who are infected with Omicron variant can have mild disease all the way through severe disease. Initial reports suggest that people with Omicron tend to have more mild disease, but it’s too early to tell. And the reason for that is because it takes time for people to go through the full course of their infection. It may take some weeks before we actually understand how many of those individuals will go on to develop severe disease. So, we do see that full spectrum. But even if it is a mild disease, it’s important that we still act fast now to take measures to control its spread. Because even if we have a large number of cases that are mild, some of those individuals will need hospitalizations. They will need to be- go into ICU and some people will die. And so more cases can mean more hospitalizations. More hospitalizations could mean more deaths, and we don’t want to see that happen on top of an already difficult situation with Delta circulating globally.
MARGARET BRENNAN: More measures take more health protective measures. Exactly what does that mean? I know the W.H.O. has cautioned against travel right now.
DR. VAN KERKOVE: So, there’s different types of measures that we’re talking about. If we’re talking to governments right now, our message to governments is don’t wait to act. Everything that we need to do for Delta will benefit Omicron no matter how this variant unfolds. It’s not just the emergence of a new variant of concern like Omicron. The big question is whether or not Omicron will outcompete Delta. Remember, Delta is dominant, and that’s an extremely dangerous variant. So, we want governments to act now to take measures to increase vaccination coverage among those who are most at risk in all countries, as well as take measures to drive down transmission. This is about having policies in place to reduce the spread, wearing of a mask, physical distancing, improving ventilation, supporting people to work from home who can, and making sure you take measures to keep yourself safe when it comes to gatherings. There’s a lot of things that people can do to reduce the risk of spread when they come into contact with others.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ve seen that the virus is flourishing among the unvaccinated. COVAX is the part of the World Health Organization initiative that was supposed to avoid vaccine inequity. It’s not meeting its own goals. Why isn’t the international system getting vaccines to the people who need them?
DR. VAN KERKOVE: It’s an excellent question, MARGARET, I think there’s a combination of factors of why COVAX has not had access to the vaccine to be able to distribute those to those who are most at risk in all countries. It’s a matter of having enough production. It’s a matter of having the deals in place with manufacturers, with the companies that are producing these vaccines to be able to get those to the countries who need them most. I think, you know, if we look at one year of use of safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19, it is an absolute triumph that we actually have so many safe and effective vaccines that keep people alive, prevent severe infection and prevent deaths. But the failure to actually deliver those around the world is- is catastrophic. And COVAX and partners, all of the partners within COVAX have been working hard to do that. But what countries actually need access to the vaccine itself?
MARGARET BRENNAN: But why isn’t COVAX, the UN, the W.H.O. able to do that last mile delivery and help with the logistics you say are so badly needed?
DR. VAN KERKOVE: So, it’s not even about the last mile. I mean, what we need are countries to be able to purchase the vaccines themselves. We need companies to be able to allow us to purchase those vaccines through COVAX. We need those donations to be given through COVAX so that they can be allocated to those who need them most. Countries are working very hard right now on the actual delivery systems once they have access to those vaccines in hand. We have been working with country partners around the world in ministries themselves to be able to deliver once those vaccines come online. But we need to know when the vaccines will be available. It’s not just about, you can have X number of vaccines in the next month. You have to plan to be able to have- to be ready to deliver those.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
DR. VAN KERKOVE: And it’s not just about waiting for the leftovers. This is not even just about equity. It’s- it’s the most epidemiologically sound thing to do, ethically sound thing to do and economically sound thing to do. And it’s just not happening.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But there’s frustration in the world, though, because these international systems are supposed to help implement all of these things. We hear from the White House consistently that- that the United States has shipped, for free, more vaccines around the world than all other countries in the world combined. They told us 273 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent to help train health care workers in southern Africa, that the White House says it’s donated 100 million vaccine doses to countries on the African continent. So, we in America are being told there is an effort. Why isn’t that getting to people in need? Why can’t the W.H.O. do more?
DR. VAN KERKOVE: Well, frankly, it’s not enough. And we need it from more countries. So, we are incredibly grateful for what the United States has delivered. But we need that from other leaders around the world. We can’t have enough. This is a global problem that we’re seeing–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.
DR. VAN KERKOVE: –on this pandemic with the Delta variant, with the emergence of the Omicron variant. We need more. And it’s not a failure of COVAX to be able to deliver. The failure is the ability to have access to those vaccines to deliver. It’s more than just rhetoric. What we need are the- to be able to purchase them ourselves, to have- to get in line, to get ahead of the line so that the vaccines can actually go to those countries in need. You know, don’t get me wrong what the United States is doing, we are very grateful for. But we need much more of it and we need it from around the world. You can’t protect only one country–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
DR. VAN KERKOVE: –while the rest of the world suffers as not how we are going to get out of this pandemic.
MARGARET BRENNAN: On that point, I know the World Health Organization has said that giving booster shots is unfair because people are getting another dose here while the rest of the world, they’re still waiting. We heard from the White House argue against that and say both things can be done at the same time. Why don’t you think both things can be done at the same time?
DR. VAN KERKOVE: Because it has an impact on production. It has an impact on supply. So our argument is that people around the world who are most at risk need their first and second doses before others get more doses. Many people in the world are- are protected, very well protected against severe disease and death. And adding another booster on top of that at the expense of others in other countries is what we’re saying is- is unjust. It’s unfair. It’s not right. And so you can do both, but it has an impact. It has an impact on supply and there’s no other way around that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: OK. Dr. Thank you very much for your work and your time today.
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