Ministries of health, science and trade, South Africa Conference on harnessing science, technology and innovation in response to COVID-19

Your Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa through his representative,

Your Excellency Dr Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health,

Your Excellency Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education,

Your Excellency Mr Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Economic Development,

Your Excellency Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor, African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology,

Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to Your Excellency President Ramaphosa for convening this important event, but also for your leadership as Chair of the African Union during this unprecedented crisis.

Regional solidarity is critical, and your efforts in developing the continental strategy and the coalition of business and political leaders, have been very important.

We know South Africa is now facing a serious challenge, with community transmission and increasing numbers of deaths.

I send my deep condolences over those you have lost;

I send my admiration for your health workers who are working tirelessly to save lives;

And I offer WHO’s steadfast commitment to work with you to defeat the outbreak.

It’s important to remember that no matter the situation, it can be turned around. It’s never too late.

Many countries have demonstrated with determination and the right actions, transmission can be interrupted and lives can be saved.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, science and innovation have been at the forefront of the response.

At the beginning, we knew very little about the virus that causes COVID-19. We needed serious, accelerated science, and we needed it fast.

The only way to do that was by working together.

In its role as a global health convenor and coordinator, WHO has worked with partners around the world to accelerate these critical research and innovations with unprecedented speed.

Within days of learning of the first cases in China, we published extensive guidance on how to find, test and treat cases and protect health workers.

We also published the first protocol for testing for the virus, and immediately started working with a manufacturer in Germany to produce tests and ship them to countries most in need.

We convened hundreds of scientists to develop a roadmap for research, in early February.

We have brought together thousands of experts from all over the world, in many disciplines, to analyse the evolving evidence and distil it into guidance.

Never before has WHO produced such a large volume of technical advice in such a short period.

More than 4 million people have enrolled in our training courses through the online learning platform.

It was clear that the only way we could take on this unprecedented global challenge was with an unprecedented response, working together across institutions and borders for our collective future.

That is why we have launched a series of innovative scientific and logistical collaborations under the theme of Solidarity.

Solidarity is our only way forward.

In March, we launched the Solidarity Trial to quickly generate the robust data we need to know which therapeutics are the most effective.

By enrolling patients in multiple countries, the Solidarity Trial aims to rapidly discover whether any of the drugs slow disease progression or improve survival.

So far, more than 5500 patients in more than 20 countries have joined the trial.

WHO has also established “Solidarity Two”, a global collaboration for serological surveys of the virus that causes COVID-19.

A complete understanding of the epidemiology and global risk posed by this novel virus requires systematic serologic testing.

Serologic testing detects antibodies in the blood that indicate if a person has already been infected.

This information is critical.

It tells us how frequently infection occurs among different populations, how many people have had mild or asymptomatic infection, and how many people have been infected but may not have been identified by routine disease surveillance.

It also may tell us what proportion of the population could be immune in the future.

This will allow local, national, and international decision-makers to respond collectively, and more effectively, to the pandemic.

Solidarity Two is unique in several interconnected ways.

It provides a global platform for government and academic collaborators to share cutting-edge scientific advances.

It accelerates global progress towards understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.

It provides every country access to the tools and procedures needed to conduct their own serologic surveys.

And it promotes access to scientific discovery for all populations globally.

Of course, one of the most active areas of innovation is vaccines.

Less than 8 months in to the pandemic, more than 200 vaccine candidates are in development, and more than 20 have started human trials.

We commend South Africa for participating in one of those trials, in collaboration with the University of Oxford.

Our vaccine work includes four critical elements:

First, harnessing a broad global coalition to develop and evaluate candidate vaccines as quickly and safely as possible;

Second, mapping candidate vaccines and their progress across the world;

Third, defining the desired characteristics of safe and effective vaccines;

And fourth, coordinating clinical trials across the world.

But innovation is only part of the answer to this pandemic. Together, we must all ensure that all people have access to the fruits of innovation.

We must make sure that vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics for COVID-19 are global public goods, not another reason that more people are left behind.

That’s why WHO worked with the European Commission and other partners to form the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, to speed up the development, production and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

To complement the ACT Accelerator, WHO also worked with the government of Costa Rica to launch the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, or C-TAP, which compiles COVID-19 health technology related knowledge, intellectual property and data.

Local production is also key to ensuring access, especially in Africa. I encourage you to invest now in building capacity for local production, so that when vaccines and therapeutics are available, you will be able to rapidly scale up access not only for South Africa, but for the continent.

In addition to our work on vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and serology studies, WHO is also working to harness the power of digital technology against COVID-19.

Our new Digital Health and Innovation department has developed two key mobile products aimed at supporting health workers and informing the public.

First, the WHO Academy app provides health workers with mobile access to a wealth of COVID-19 knowledge resources, developed by WHO, that include up-to-the-minute guidance, tools, training, and virtual workshops that will help them care for COVID-19 patients and protect themselves.