At today’s opening of the 59th Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Director Carissa F. Etienne asserted that the “tragic march of the COVID-19 pandemic” has exposed the urgent need for investments to strengthen health systems and technology production across the Americas.
The region’s inability to procure key COVID-19 supplies and equipment, including vaccines, “heightened our vulnerabilities and severely compromised our pandemic response,” Dr. Etienne said. “However, this alarming circumstance has galvanized us into recognizing the obligatory need for regional self-sufficiency in health technologies.”
She added that PAHO recently launched a platform to boost regional vaccine production and that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, and other partners have expressed interest in collaboration.
The Directing Council, held virtually from 20-24 September this year, brings together ministers and other health authorities from countries throughout the Americas to discuss and deliberate on important policy recommendations for the region.
During the session, Dr. Etienne’s presented PAHO’s Annual Report, which covers the period between 1 July 2020 and 30 June 2021, and focuses on PAHO’s technical cooperation to assist countries in responding to the pandemic while maintaining and strengthening health gains.
Dr. Etienne also called attention to the “enormity” of the pandemic’s human toll, noting that as of last Friday, there were 87.6 million COVID-19 cases and 2.16 million deaths.
“It is noteworthy that after every disaster, be it a natural disaster, a major disease outbreak like Ebola or a financial crisis, we all reaffirm our commitment to building resilient health systems,” she said. “Sadly, if nothing else, this pandemic has demonstrated that our continuing failure to deliver on this commitment does indeed carry a high price tag in terms of the millions of lives lost and economies that are destroyed.”
“I urge us all, to invest in our health systems and swiftly ensure their transformation so they have the capacity to respond to the needs of all people, every day and to better respond to pandemics and other disasters when they do occur,” Dr. Etienne concluded.
Selected quotes from the opening session of the 59th Directing Council:
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera emphasized the crucial need for international collaboration. Chile is “promoting a new treaty for prevention and response before future pandemics. We must assure that when this happens, we will be much better prepared and we will be able to act swiftly, quickly, with coordination, and with solidarity.”
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, acknowledged the inequity exposed by the pandemic. “While the COVID-19 pandemic intensified inequities in America and around the world, we must not let it derail our goals of advancing health and well-being for all our people,” he said. “We are proud to have directly donated 38 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to 15 countries in Latin America to date.” He added, “We look forward to sharing more in the months ahead as supplies become available.”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, President of the IDB, expressed support for “multilateral alliances” to increase regional vaccine production and indicated that the pandemic also highlighted the need for digitization of public health information. “This is essential to strengthen epidemiological surveillance actions; facilitate access to and use of services through telemedicine; enable communication; and provide data for real-time decision making, among other uses,” he said.
The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus provided an update on the COVID-19 global vaccination targets set out by WHO.
“I am pleased that in the Americas, almost 90% of member states have now reached the 10% of the vaccination target, but less than one third of countries have reached the 40% target,” Dr. Tedros said. WHO and PAHO, he added, will continue to support countries in the region through COVAX to increase the availability of vaccines.
Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) stated: “We will continue to do our part to promote solidarity, equality and social inclusion in our joint and strategic actions with PAHO to help protect the most vulnerable among us.”