"The future is not written in stone and the course of the COVID-19 pandemic is in our hands"

Interview with Dr Hans Henri Kluge, Regional Director for Europe of the World Health Organization

How do you see the impact of the vaccination campaign in Europe?

Since 4 February 2021, more people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 globally than have been confirmed infected since the beginning of the epidemic. Over 477 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the European Region to date (as of 17 June).

This shows that great progress is being made: rates of hospitalisation and deaths have been decreasing, particularly in countries with high vaccination uptake among the older adult populations. This demonstrates not only that vaccination works, but that the strategy of vaccinating the most at risk first, as laid out by both global and regional advisory committees, and implemented across the WHO European Region, works – to save lives, ease the burden on health systems and bring us out of the acute stage of the pandemic as quickly as possible.

While vaccination is playing an important role in the declining rates of hospitalisation and deaths, we must remain cautious, because even if someone is vaccinated, he or she can still get infected and pass on the virus. We need to continue with proven public health and social measures, while also speeding up the pace of vaccination.

A very important message that I would like to convey is that the future is not written in stone, and that the course of the COVID-19 pandemic is in our hands, as it is determined by the actions of individuals and society as a whole.

And what is the situation globally?

One of the key messages is that more equity is needed. Vaccines are reducing severe disease and death in countries that are fortunate enough to have them in sufficient quantities to cover the most vulnerable, and early results suggest that vaccines might also drive down transmission. The shocking global disparity in access to vaccines remains one of the biggest risks to ending the pandemic

Currently, 77% of all vaccine doses globally have been administered in just 10 countries. We must do more to ensure that vaccines are spread equitably among countries and populations.

Another related message is that solidarity is key. This is the time to harness all solidarity and support to ensure that no one is left behind. Let’s aim to get high vaccination coverage in each and every country, starting with those most at risk, so that we can take a big step closer to resuming our normal lives.

At the 74th World Health Assembly, the WHO’s Director General called on countries to support a massive push to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, and a drive to December to achieve our goal of vaccinating at least 30% by the end of the year. As a global public health community, we all need to step up our efforts

What are the lessons learnt and how could we be better prepared for the future?

The 74th WHA, which met from 24 May to 1 June, focused on ending COVID-19 and also on preparing for the next pandemic. More importantly, it was a huge collective endeavour to draw lessons from the current pandemic.

The WHO has commissioned several independent reviews and panels to guide the global health community to do better in our collective response to pandemic outbreaks or other public health emergencies of international concern.

All reviews have provided strong and clear recommendations on the future of a stronger WHO role in responding to health emergencies. We now need to move from recommendations to making it happen. This will be a major task, requiring broad political and financial commitment, and with a clear common goal of saving more lives, preventing loss of livelihoods, and generating equity in our pandemic response.

There have been proposals for a new pandemic treaty to strengthen the architecture for pandemic preparedness and response. This will be discussed at a special session of the WHA to be held in November.

In the European Region, I have set up the "Monti Commission" - a Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development to rethink policy priorities in the light of pandemics. Comprising former heads of state, scientists and economists, heads of health and social care institutions, and leaders of the business community and financial institutions from across the Region, this Commission will draw lessons from the ways in which different countries‘ health systems have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and will make recommendations on investments and reforms to improve the resilience of health and social care systems.

How is the EU supporting global and regional efforts in the fight against COVID-19?

The EU is one of the most important partners of the United Nations (UN) globally.

The EU accession process is a key driver of reform and a source of motivation for governments to make progress on a range of legislative and policy areas. EU investment packages will be a key driver for facilitating increased public and private investments in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnerships, including in the health sector, by European and international financial institutions. We also appreciate EU investments in health through funding for and joint actions with WHO/Europe in non-EU Member States. 

During the current (post-)pandemic period, WHO/Europe is engaged in building alliances and shaping joint UN/EU strategies with the aim of furthering the process of EU accession in the Western Balkans sub-region, and strengthening the democratic and economic space in EU Neighbourhood countries.

WHO/Europe endeavours to use its prominence in health leadership to actively align, support, and accelerate strategic partnerships and collaborations in the European sub-regions as a cornerstone of our progress in health towards implementing the European Programme of Work, 2020-2025 and achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.