World Health Assembly calls for cooperation against COVID-19
The 73rd World Health Assembly was held on May 18 – 19 online for the first time in its history. It was attended by the health ministers of almost all member-states of the WHO, and was addressed by many world leaders including President Xi Jinping (China), President Emanuel Macron (France), President Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Chancellor Angela Merkel (Germany) President Moon Jae-in (South Korea), and Mrs. Mia Motley, Prime Minister of Barbados.
The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the World Health Assembly are to determine the policies of the Organization, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed program budget. The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland.
Throughout his opening speech, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted the major challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to the people of the world, but also emphasized that it has united the people of the world to fight it. “Hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs. Fear and uncertainty abound. The global economy is headed for its sharpest contraction since the Great Depression. The pandemic has brought out the best – and worst – of humanity: Fortitude and fear; solidarity and suspicion; rapport and recrimination,” He said.
He underlined the importance of solidarity and international cooperation in this time of crisis, saying: “We have seen what is possible with cooperation, and what we risk without it. Dr. Tedros made it the connection between economic development and building a strong global healthcare system very clear: “How do you practice physical distancing when you live in crowded conditions? How do you stay at home when you have to work to feed your family? How do you practice hand hygiene when you lack clean water?,” He exclaimed. He added: “COVID-19 is not just a global health emergency, it is a vivid demonstration of the fact that there is no health security without resilient health systems, or without addressing the social, economic, commercial and environmental determinants of health.”
President Xi: Build a Global Health Community
The President of China, Xi Jinping, in his speech to the WHA titled “Fighting COVID-19 Through Solidarity and Cooperation: Building a Global Community of Health for All”, made a number of important proposals and presented certain initiatives. President Xi started by clarifying China’s position and method in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. “In China, after making painstaking efforts and enormous sacrifice, we have turned the tide on the virus and protected the life and health of our people. All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility. We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time. We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation. We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need,” He Said. Emphasizing the role of the WHO and the importance of supporting it Xi said: “Second, the World Health Organization should lead the global response. Under the leadership of Dr. Tedros, WHO has made a major contribution in leading and advancing the global response to COVID-19. At this crucial juncture, to support WHO is to support international cooperation and the battle for saving lives as well. China calls on the international community to increase political and financial support for WHO so as to mobilize resources worldwide to defeat the virus.”
President Xi explained that China pays special attention to helping Africa. “Third, we must provide greater support for Africa. Developing countries, African countries in particular, have weaker public health systems. Helping them build capacity must be our top priority in COVID-19 response. The world needs to provide more material, technological and personnel support for African countries,” he emphasized.
Xi stressed that China stands for the vision of “building a community with a shared future for mankind” and takes it as its responsibility to ensure not just the life and health of its own citizens, but also global public health. He said, “For the sake of boosting international cooperation against COVID-19, I would like to announce the following:”
— China will provide US$2 billion over two years to help with COVID-19 response and with economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.
— China will work with the UN to set up a global humanitarian response depot and hub in China, ensure the operation of anti-epidemic supply chains and foster “green corridors” for fast-track transportation and customs clearance.
— China will establish a cooperation mechanism for its hospitals to pair up with 30 African hospitals and accelerate the building of the Africa CDC headquarters to help the continent ramp up its disease preparedness and control capacity.
— COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment in China, when available, will be made a global public good. This will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.
— China will work with other G20 members to implement the Debt Service Suspension Initiative for the poorest countries.
Debt relief for Africa
In his address, South African President and African Union chair Cyril Ramaphosa drew attention to the interconnection between economics and health care, and that any “recovery” must ultimately address both aspects of the problem. Addressing the Assembly opening session, the President recognized the “profound social, political, economic and security implications” of the virus; that it was affecting not only the health but the livelihoods of millions around the world. This was particularily true in Africa.
Recognizing that this crisis was going to be with the world for some time, Ramaphosa raised the issue of debt relief. “We need to prepare to adapt accordingly…. The African Union has made a call for developing countries to be assisted in their efforts to combat the pandemic, and to re-build their economies. This assistance needs to include debt relief.”
Looking toward the future, Ramaphosa stated: “We must press ahead with our goal of making universal health care a reality for all the people of the world, and no one must be left behind…. Let us continue to be bold and courageous in confronting this pandemic. Let us continue to collaborate and act in solidarity in the interests of the millions of people around the world”.
The resolution, co-sponsored by more than 130 countries, was adopted by unanimously. It calls for the intensification of efforts to control the pandemic, and for equitable access to and fair distribution of all essential health technologies and products to combat the virus. It also calls for an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the global response, including, but not limited to, WHO’s performance. The resolution also included a call for an independent inquiry into the pandemic and the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) role in responding to it. Both China and the U.S. voted for this proposal. In light of the politicization and stigmatization of the COVID-19 outbreak, this step is very crucial to put the facts on the table and avoid circulating conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and how different nations responded to it. This will help clear the way for serious cooperation among all nations, with the WHO being the main coordinator of the international efforts in defeating the virus.
One week before the WHA summit, the BRIX published an article calling for using the Belt and Road Initiative as a vehicle for building a global healthcare system based on developing the necessary infrastructure and industrial capacity especially for nations in Africa and the developing sector. The article was republished in China’s leading English-language newspaper Global Times on May 16. As was obvious in the speeches of WHO Secretary General Tedros and President Xi, the issue of the economic development of nations and its direct role the question of health has clearly become part of the agenda of the WHA.
Wang Yi argues for U.S.-China Collaboration on COVID-19, denounces “political virus”
The Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, fielded questions from international media in a press conference held on May 24 on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress. There were also several questions regarding the deteriorating situation between China and the U.S. given the Washington drumbeat to “make China pay” for the COVID virus, including from an irate CNN journalist, whose question Wang Yi had to reformulate in order to differentiate between truth and lies.
In a reply to one question, Wang Yi observed that the United States was the country that was most affected by COVID-19. Many people in the U.S. had sent help to China during its crisis and China had provided massive help to the United States. “It is imperative that we handle our relations responsibly,” he said. “China and the United States have different systems and disagree on some items. That doesn’t preclude cooperation. We should nevertheless build a relationship on coordinating our efforts, but must always preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some forces in the U.S. have taken the U.S. hostage. This would reverse decades of U.S.-China cooperation. People on both sides should step forward and show the possibility of cooperation between two countries with different systems and different cultures,” he said, characterizing the anti-China campaign as a “political virus.”
“This political virus is using every opportunity to attack and smear China. Some politicians have ignored the most basic facts and concocted too many lies about China and plotted too many conspiracies. I want to say here: Don’t waste precious time any longer, and don’t ignore lives. What China and the United States need to do the most is to first learn from each other and share their experience in fighting against the epidemic, and help each country fight it.”
In reply to the obnoxious CNN question about how China is now adopting a “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy (referring to two popular Chinese movies), Wang said the reporter was not “framing the question in the right way,” he said. “You have to distinguish between right and wrong. China has always followed a path of peace, and this is widely recognized by the international community. But we have guts, and we will push back against insults. The future of diplomacy is premised on working together for the common interest, and not doing something because one country says so. We will always stand on the right side of history and those who call China a hegemon simply don’t want to give up their own hegemony.”
When asked about the various lawsuits that several states and others have filed demanding reparations for COVID, Wang repeated those who are pursuing these frivolous cases are “daydreaming and bringing shame on themselves.”
“China is no longer what it was 100 years ago,” he said, referring to the colonialist powers’ unjust demands on a weak Qing China.
China and UNESCO Hold Belt and Road Youth Forum on COVID
UNESCO and the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO held an online forum with youth from the Belt and Road countries on May 20, entitled “International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads: Special Dialogue on Youth’s Response to COVID-19.” 100 youth from 68 countries took part in the dialogue. According to Xinhua: “Participants all agreed that viruses know no borders or races, and suggested that the youth around the world should take concerted efforts with openness, inclusiveness and scientific attitude to win the battle against the virus.
“While speaking highly of China’s anti-virus achievements in their speeches, the participants said that China had resumed economic and social order while keeping regular epidemic prevention and control firmly in place after COVID-19 showed signs of waning with dwindling cases, and had rolled out pragmatic measures in time to support youth employment and entrepreneurship, which is worth learning for all countries.”
According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian: “The youth representative who received President Xi Jinping’s reply letter after the second International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads in 2018, the post-90s generation youth representative of Peking University’s medical team dispatched to Hubei and the representative of Pakistani students in China delivered speeches upon invitation at the event. A senior official from UNESCO and an official from the Chinese Ministry of Education also delivered remarks.”
Ghana: President Commits To Build 94 Hospitals in One Year
In a televised address to the nation, Sunday, April 26, Ghana President Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo responded to the devastation posed by the coronavirus by declaring his intention to build 94, 100-bed hospitals across 88 districts in Ghana in the next year. In his eighth “State of the Union” address to the nation, Akufo-Addo said, “There are 88 districts in our country without district hospitals; we have six new regions without regional hospitals; we do not have five infectious disease control centers dotted across the country, and we do not have enough testing and isolation centers for diseases like COVD-19. We must do something urgently about this.”
In addition to finding the right methods of financing such a major undertaking, Ghana will be forced to address other aspects of the healthcare infrastructure issue when it confronts the reality that, currently, there is virtually no domestic staff — doctors, nurses or specialists — for these hospitals. Deputy general secretary of the Ghana Medical Association, Dr. Titus Beyuo, told the press, “If you’re thinking of universal health coverage, then definitely, if we get district hospitals everywhere, it is welcome news. Because the current distribution of health care is very inequitable. [But] we expect a clear policy direction on how to get trained people for those facilities.”
First Human Trial of COVID-19 Vaccine reported
The Lancet medical journal published on May 22 the first peer-reviewed study on the use of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in human beings. The study by Zhu, Li, et al., “Safety, tolerability, and immunogenicity of a recombinant adenovrius type-5 vectored COVID-19 vaccine,” was primarily designed to test the safety of a vaccine developed by Beijing Institute of Technology and CanSino Biologics. The vaccine is based on a common virus that has been altered so as to be unable to replicate, but which expresses the spike protein of the coronavirus. It therefore causes the body’s cells to create the spike protein, which the immune system can then find and learn how to defeat.
Blood testing at 14 and 28 days after vaccination revealed that there were significant levels of neutralizing antibodies for live SARS-CoV-2 and that T-cells that responded to the spike protein had developed.
This is good news, particularly since this vaccine approach is quite similar to that taken by the University of Oxford’s ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine, which was taken up by AstraZeneca as AZD1222 and has now received up to $1.2 billion from the U.S. BARDA for production assistance.
The study author point out that it is too soon to come to any conclusions about which among the several types of vaccine being tested would be most effective, since this is the first peer-reviewed paper and there are no others to compare to yet.
As mentioned above, President Xi Jinping announced last week during the World Health Assembly that China will make any vaccine it develops against COVID-19 a global public good, and will share if for free with the rest of the world.
Operation Warp Speed Accelerates Work on COVID-19 Vaccine
According to a press release by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has partnered with UK pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca for the production of 300,000,000 doses of its coronavirus vaccine AZD1222, with the first deliveries to occur in September.
BARDA will provide up to $1.2 billion in support of clinical studies, vaccine manufacture, and other development activities. Phase 3 clinical studies of the vaccine will begin this summer in the U.S., with the recruitment of approximately 30,000 healthy volunteers. A Phase 1/2 study began in April in the UK.
Several aspects are unclear at the time of writing: Will the $1.2 billion include the doses, or will they be purchased separately? Will AstraZeneca attempt to strictly enforce its patents, or will this vaccine, tested and manufactured with government support, be a public good?
Other Belt and Road news:
Piraeus Is a Top Port in Mediterranean
The Port of Piraeus has become the top container port in the Mediterranean as of the end of 2019, having handled a total of 5.65 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) for that year, according to the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP) on May 20. OLP is majority owned by the Chinese state shipping company COSCO.
The announcement came from the Port’s chief executive officer Capt. Fu Chengqiu at a teleconference where he presented the port’s financial figures for last year to the Hellenic Fund and Asset Management Association, according to Xinhua. “2019 was the most successful year in terms of profitability. The successful financial management also brings additional revenue to the Greek state due to increased concession fees, dividends, insurance contributions etc. and contributes to the welfare of the local communities,” Captain Fu said. Indicating that growth has continued despite the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, he reported that container handling has grown by more than 2% on an annual basis in the January-April period.
In a separate interview with Xinhua former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said Greece can act as a strong link between China and the European Union in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. “The experiences of our productive cooperation can be very useful at a European level. I believe in a productive relationship between China and the European Union,” Papandreou stated. “The Belt and Road Initiative should be a joint project, and one that will redefine our relationships for the next century. It will be crucial that Europe and China work together in regions such as Africa, the Caucasus and the Middle East,” where the BRI project is being implemented, Papandreou said. “Greece will be a strong link between China and other European countries.”
Papandreou also called for Greece and China to join forces to offer the world new approaches to healthcare delivery. “As the Belt and Road project speaks of both common interests and common destinies, health seems to be the one issue that highlights these values. Access for all citizens without exception to the health systems of the countries participating in this comprehensive project would strengthen the Belt and Road and give it a deeper meaning,” he argued.
China Continues Research on Faster Magnetic-levitation trains
China is expanding its use of domestically produced maglev technology. A project to develop maglev trains that could run at speeds of up to 1,000 kilometers an hour, instead of today’s maximum speeds of somewhere in the 400s, is about to start in Hebei province.
A report in the Construction Review Online published on May 21 stated that experimental maglev tracks which would have been laid in the central Hebei province earlier this year, but were delayed due to the current pandemic, would soon be constructed. The news daily reported that China Railway Group Limited was tasked with conducting a feasibility study for a new maglev network stretching from Guangzhou to Beijing on which trains could travel at between 600 kph and 1,000 kph.
China already uses domestically produced maglev technology: In the Changsha maglev express, which opened for commercial use in 2016 and runs from the airport to the city’s high-speed rail station at a speed of approximately 100 kph, and the S1 line on the Beijing subway system, which also travels at 100 kph and was opened at the very end of 2017.
This type of large scale investment in infrastructure is one of the key elements in China’s earlier response to the financial crisis in 2008 and seems to be part of the relaunching of the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown.