Development Health

Emergency Committee on COVID-19 Advises on Variants, Vaccines

COVID-19 vaccines and variants

By Staff Reporter

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to constitute an extraordinary event, a public health risk to other states through international spread, and continues to require a coordinated international response, the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) Emergency Committee (EC) on COVID-19 has revealed.

In a virtual meeting conducted by EC on the 14th of January 2021, the committee strongly encouraged vaccine manufacturers to rapidly provide safety and efficacy data to WHO for emergency use listing.

The lack of such data, EC said, was a barrier to ensuring the timely and equitable supply of vaccines at the global level.

“There are challenges posed by some manufacturers’ delayed submission of vaccine data to WHO. These data delays impact WHO’s ability to provide emergency use listing which ultimately affects equitable vaccine access. We strongly encourage manufacturers to provide data to the WHO as rapidly as possible.”

The meeting was conducted at the request of WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to review the emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and to consider the potential use of vaccination and testing certificates for international travel.

On variants, the EC called for a global expansion of genomic sequencing and sharing of data, along with greater scientific collaboration to address critical unknowns.

“There is a need for WHO to develop a standardized system for naming new variants that avoids geographical markers, an area WHO has already begun work on.

“On vaccines, there is need for equitable access through the COVAX Facility as well as technology transfer to increase global production capacities,”said EC.

Given that the impact of vaccines in reducing transmission is yet unknown, and the current availability of vaccines is too limited, the committee recommended that countries do not require proof of vaccination from incoming travellers.

The committee also advised countries to implement coordinated, evidence-based measures for safe travel and to share with WHO experiences and best practices learned.

The Director-General expressed the need for global solidarity in addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic and emphasized the need for protection of the most vulnerable and he applauded the Committee for their continued support and advice.

Pertaining to strengthening health systems, the committee said, “It is significant to provide strategic insight on how State Parties can sustain the public health infrastructure, capacities, and functions developed for COVID-19 response to support strengthened health systems and universal health coverage in the long-term.”

In as much as Covid-19 vaccines are concerned, EC stressed the need to accelerate research on critical unknowns about COVID-19 vaccination efficacy on transmission, duration of protection against severe disease and asymptomatic infection, duration of immunity (following infection or vaccination), long-term protection after using different vaccination intervals, protection after a single dose, and vaccination regimes, in line with the SAGE and the Research and Development Blueprint recommendations.

The committee also pointed out the need to promote global solidarity and equitable vaccine access by encouraging States Parties and manufacturers to donate resources and provide support to the COVAX Facility.

“It is important to promote technology transfer to low- and middle- income countries with the potential capacity to accelerate global production of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Support State Parties, including fragile states, in preparing for COVID-19 vaccine introduction by developing a national deployment and vaccination plan, in line with WHO guidance, that addresses barriers to COVID-19 vaccine readiness.

” Such planning should include prioritization of populations, regulatory authorization, supply and logistics preparation, indemnification and liability, health workforce planning, and access for humanitarian and vulnerable population.”

Evidence-Based Response Strategies, EC said, were important and should continue to rapidly provide and regularly update evidence-based advice; guidance; tools; and resources, including regular dissemination of resources to combat misinformation for COVID-19, to enhance evidence-based COVID-19 preparedness and response strategies and implementation of such strategies.

On surveillance, the need to continue to actively support countries to further strengthen their SARS-CoV-2 surveillance systems, including strategic use of genetic sequencing, by leveraging existing systems such as the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) and relevant networks for systematic sharing of data and specimens was stressed.

The WHO Director of the Health Emergency Information and Risk Assessment Department provided an overview of the evolution of the pandemic and the progress made on the implementation of the 30 October 2020 Temporary Recommendations.

“WHO continues to monitor the global risk level of the COVID-19 pandemic. WHO assessed the global risk level as very high due, in part, to recent reports of new SARS-CoV-2 variants,” he said.

The Committee unanimously agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic still constitutes an extraordinary event, a public health risk to other States through international spread, and continues to require a coordinated international response.

As such, the Committee concurred that the COVID-19 pandemic remains a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) and offered advice to the Director-General.

The Committee recognized WHO’s and States Parties’ progress in implementing the previous Temporary Recommendations from the 5th meeting of the Emergency Committee.

The Committee noted that these recommendations remain relevant and had acquired additional urgency given the evolution of the pandemic and the continued need for a coordinated global response.

The Committee advised on extending the previous Temporary Recommendations and provided additional advice to the Director-General.

Within three months, the Emergency Committee will be reconvened, at the discretion of the Director-General.
Extending advice to the WHO Secretariat on SARS-CoV-2 Variants, EC highlighted that it was imperative to continue to work with partners to develop standardized definitions and nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 virus variants, based on their genetic sequence, that avoids stigmatization and is geographically and politically neutral.

“Provision of clear information to State Parties on what constitutes a variant of concern is critical.

“There is need to continue increasing worldwide capacities for SARS-CoV-2 molecular testing and genetic sequencing, in line with WHO guidance, and encourage rapid sharing of sequences and meta-data to strengthen monitoring of virus evolution and to increase global understanding of variants and their effects on vaccine, therapeutics and diagnostic efficacy.”

This was the sixth meeting of the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 since the declaration of a PHEIC on 30 January 2020.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende