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2 December 2021

The world facing COVID-19

Panel of epidemiologists, immunologists and policy advisors at TWAS Fifteenth General Conference explores the importance of equity to maintain global health

The two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began have challenged the world’s nations in an unprecedented way, but they have also been a period of important lessons. These lessons have been both scientific and social, said eminent figures at TWAS Fifteenth General Conference symposium held on 3 November, revealing inequities and serving as a reminder of the dangers of misinformation and the importance of global cooperation.

The symposium, titled “The world facing COVID-19”, featured a series of talks that presented a strong case for a more just world, where everyone had access to needed vaccines, which, speakers said, would ultimately benefit everyone. 

TWAS Fellow George Gao, Director-General of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and Director of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Key Laboratory of Pathogenic Microbiology and Immunology, convened the meeting. He emphasized that the conversation was not only about the pandemic but the state of the world, as its nations strove toward herd immunity.

“We still have a gap, especially for the developing countries lacking the vaccine,” observed Gao. “If you don’t share the vaccine, the vaccine will share the world. So, let’s work together, and get the vaccinations done not just for the developed countries, but for the developing countries.”

TWAS Fellow Salim Abdool Karim, Director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) in Durban, South Africa, noted that the virus had set the world back in its mission to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The virus, he said, is not just an infection, but an event that has had major global impacts across many issues, with 150 million more people in poverty than when the pandemic began. He added that, in the wake of the pandemic, there are also 161 million more people who are food insecure.

“But for me, one of the worst things we have seen in this pandemic has been the way in which disparities have become so highlighted and so obvious,” continued Abdool Karim. “They have become far wider than we had ever anticipated, whether they are disparities on race or gender, or in access to resources like data or vaccines.”

According to Firdausi Qadri, a TWAS Fellow and Immunologist at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh, her country has had close to 28,000 deaths from COVID-19 already. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has inoculated only 10 per cent of the population with two doses of the vaccine, and 14 per cent more with one dose. Bangladesh is currently trying to get access to more vaccines, negotiating with countries like China, India, the United States, Japan and the Russian Federation. 

"COVID-19 anywhere is COVID-19 everywhere,” Qadri said. “This is a very sobering thought that hopefully will lead to equity in vaccine distribution."

Peter Singer of Canada, Special Advisor to the Director General of the World Health Organization and also a TWAS Fellow, noted the importance of distribution and expanding global manufacturing capacity so as to strengthen an equitable access to vaccines. He defined global inequities in vaccine-access unethical and dangerous for the world.

"By letting the virus rage in any country, we're increasing the risk of generating variants that potentially, in the future, could evade the vaccine and set us all back,” said Singer. 

Lara Manganaro, of the National Institute of Molecular Genetics in Italy, discussed her research investigating the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccine in people living with HIV, whose immune systems are already weakened. 

“It is known that the immune response to vaccines of immuno-compromised people may be impaired, and higher doses or more frequent boosters may be required,” she said in her presentation, concluding that her team observed the mRNA vaccine appeared to be effective in generating the needed immune response.

Cesar Victora, Emeritus Professor of epidemiology at the Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil, noted that his country was particularly hard-hit by the epidemic, with over 600,000 deaths from the virus so far, second in the world behind only the United States. He detailed the impact of misinformation and fake news on the spread of COVID-19, saying the situation worsened when the Government played down the impact of the pandemic and delayed the procurement of vaccines.

“My question for discussion here is, what else can scientists do?” he asked. “Can we get into the more serious business of contradicting fake news, and disseminating scientific knowledge through social media and other channels?”

And TWAS Fellows promptly acted on his appeal, adding, in the General Conference outcome document—the so-called Jeddah Declaration, adopted on 4 November—an action that calls for the systematic use of risk- and evidence-based analysis and scientific approaches to reduce the negative impact of “infodemics” on health behaviours.

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