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WHO Official Discusses Pandemic Ahead Of World Health Assembly


The World Health Organization will set out its policies and priorities and settle on its director general during the WHO's, annual meeting this Monday and Tuesday. This year's World Health Assembly is happening virtually as the organization and its member states grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and accusations of playing politics. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove is the WHO's COVID-19 technical lead and joins us now from Geneva. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Does the WHO have an opinion about realistically how long it might take to create a reliable vaccine?

VAN KERKHOVE: Typically, it takes years, up to 10 years, to develop a vaccine. And what we have in development in for COVID-19 began before COVID-19 was discovered, began with MERS coronavirus. And we have a number of vaccine candidates that are in development. Several of them are under clinical evaluation now. And we're hoping that we will have some results from some of these clinical studies in the coming months because some of them are actually being evaluated in people at the moment. But it will take time before we actually have the evidence for this safe and effective vaccine.

SIMON: Doctor, for all the talk, though, of a vaccine, is it also possible that COVID-19 will become one more persistent health problem in the world, like the flu, that people will just have to protect against and learn how to live with somehow?

VAN KERKHOVE: Well, it certainly could. I think what we need to remind ourselves is that this virus can be controlled. It's different than flu in that sense. We've seen a number of countries across Asia and now in Europe, you know, who are having success at suppressing transmission by following these fundamental steps of public health of finding, testing, isolating, treating all cases. And if we can do that, if we can put that work force in place in countries, we can bring that transmission onto such a low level that we can find a way to live with this. And I think that's the balance we need to find.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, President Trump accused the WHO of falling for Chinese misinformation and halted U.S. funding over the outbreak. There are reports now from Fox News that the U.S. is set to restore some funding. Can you tell us anything about this?

VAN KERKHOVE: Well, I don't know anything about the specifics of that. But we work so closely with the United States on the scientific level and the technical level. They're our closest partners. You know, as we work with all scientists all over the world everywhere in the world, we're so grateful for that. And that will continue no matter what. We are - the U.S. is a strong partner. And we hope the funding is restored. We have a job to do here with this pandemic and this virus. And our goal is 100% focused on saving as many lives as we can and halting transmission.

SIMON: So has the halt in U.S. funding, whether it's restored or not, impinged on your efforts?

VAN KERKHOVE: We're looking into ways in which the report of the halting of the funding will affect our work globally. But at the scientific level, no. We are working together with U.S. scientists from CDC, from NIH, from academic groups. They participate in all of our our expert networks that we've set up for laboratory aspects, for clinical management for infection prevention control, for mathematical modeling and on and on.

SIMON: Dr. Van Kerkhove, what keeps you up at night? What concerns you most right now about what's going on?

VAN KERKHOVE: Complacency - I understand that many people would like this to be over, as will I. But we have a long way to go. This virus is going to be with us for some time. And we need to find a way to remain persistent and strong and disciplined and vigilant as we work through this. I worry about the lifting of the lockdown, the so-called lockdowns in many countries. If that is done too quickly, if it is done all at once, the virus will increase. Transmission will increase. And that does worry me. But I think that we're seeing ways in which many countries are taking a data-driven approach, a controlled way in which they're lifting some of these measures. And I think we can get through this.

And I also worry about vulnerable settings across many countries in the Middle East and Africa and Latin America. We haven't seen this virus yet take hold in some of these areas. And that concerns me.

SIMON: Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, who is the World Health Organization's COVID-19 technical lead in Geneva - Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

VAN KERKHOVE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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