HANS KLUGE

‘Get vaccinated,’ says WHO chief for Europe

get-vaccinated-says-who-chief-for-europe

Universal vaccination and new medications against Covid-19 are the key to beating the pandemic, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, tells Kathimerini.

“The problem is the virus, the people are the solution,” he says, expressing optimism that the SARS-CoV-2 virus will eventually evolve into an endemic disease like the seasonal flu.

Kluge, who was in Athens for the expansion of the WHO’s European Center of Excellence for Quality in Care and Patient Safety into matters of mental health and also met with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stresses that to achieve our goals, we need to press on with vaccinations, make masks a part of our lives and continue taking public health safety measures.

This is your third time in Greece this year. What is the purpose of these frequent visits?

We have so many developments in Greece, of which I am very proud. I was here to open the WHO European Center of Excellence for Quality in Care and Patient Safety in Athens, which is very important for the city itself, working with representatives of the Agency for Quality Assurance in Health to develop the framework for improving care quality and safety measures. It is an international center and it was just announced that its scope will be extended to mental health. I want to commend Prime Minister [Kyriakos] Mitsotakis for having a deputy minister especially for mental health, Mrs [Zoe] Rapti. This is very exceptional.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced last week that there are around 150 million people in Europe who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19. The Greek government just took the bold step of obliging people over the age of 60 to get the shot. What do you think of the measure?

I think, as you said, that it is a bold move. I also think that, in principle, first we have to try convincing people with all possible means and that this is a measure of last resort. It is a decision taken by a country according to its legal framework. But of course we are facing quite a serious situation in Europe. Europe is once more at the center of the whole pandemic, and there are three factors. Number one is seasonality and number two is that far too many people are susceptible to the virus either because they are not vaccinated or because the immunity from the vaccine declines after 30 weeks, so it is very important for everyone to have a booster. Third, we should not forget that our region is dominated by the Delta variant, which is much more transmissible.

How concerned are you about the new variant, Omicron? Is it more transmissible, is it more lethal, and how effective are the vaccines we have against it? Do we know anything yet?

We are definitely concerned, but, as I always say, there is no reason for panic; we have to keep a cool head. For any variant there are four parameters that are important: The speed at which it circulates, the severity of its attacks, how easily it escapes antibodies created by the vaccines, and if it attacks different age groups differently. To be honest, we know very little about this [variant] today. It will take two more weeks of very intense study, which we are doing. We are concerned because this variant has many more mutations, which means that there is a possibility that it transmits faster and has a higher risk of reinfection. But there is some good news as well: the tools are the same. I call them the five stabilizers. Number one, increase vaccination coverage; number two, boosters for the whole population; number three, masks; number four, ventilation, especially in schools – we have to do everything possible to keep our schools open; and number five, new treatments that are coming to the market.

But we’re hearing from many different sides – including from the World Health Organization – that the vaccines we have are effective against this variant. Is that so?

Yes. We do not have any other information, so, for the time being, absolutely. We need to continue – and the last mile is the most difficult. I hear that Greece has one of the best vaccination structures in the whole region, very organized.

Are we going to have a fourth dose as well?

First and foremost we must make sure that everyone has a first dose. And here I want to thank the government of Greece. I saw that Greece is donating vaccines to Vietnam, to Gabon, to Rwanda. This is my approach: I call it “Do it all.” We need to get boosters to everyone and at the same time we need to share vaccines with other countries. So, let’s see the effect first of the third dose; we don’t know yet. With the first doses we know that immunity wanes, especially after 30 weeks. We don’t know yet for the third one, but one of the scenarios is that there will be evolution to what we call the endemic scenario. As with the seasonal flu, maybe we will need a shot every year. But we are not there yet.

Some scientists say that we are living in an era of pandemics. Are there any tools to predict when the next one will arrive?

The WHO has established a new center in Berlin on pandemic intelligence, to be able to pick up on potential threats much more quickly. That’s also why I established a pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development with Professor Mario Monti as its chairman to rethink policy priorities in a pandemic era. And one of the recommendations is to establish virtual networks, new algorithms and artificial intelligence so that we pick up on threats earlier because our information systems are too slow. But what is also important is that countries have to do their job. We made some progress the other day, reaching an agreement between 94 member-states to work on a new, international, legally binding agreement on how to handle pandemics and what to do if a country is not sharing data and does not permit access to a WHO team. A new treaty is also necessary, but we are not there yet.

There are ongoing discussions on patents for vaccine technology. Do you believe that by waiving these patents we will be able to produce or procure at a faster pace, thus accelerating global vaccination?

I think that would be a good thing, but it will not solve the pandemic that we are facing now. Many other things must be done before touching intellectual property rights. For example, technology transfer or not having export bans. We saw during the pandemic that some countries closed their borders to exports of raw materials. Also, this is not a quick solution; it needs years and years of technical training and quality assurance. So it is a goal, but we can do much more before.

Do you think we will have a cure for Covid-19 at some point? Will we be able to live our lives as we used to?

We should move not to the old reality but to a new reality. There will be days that we are not going to wear the masks – for sure – but there will also be days that we put on the masks. We should make a mentality change so that when it’s needed, we take protective measures for ourselves. The challenge is that countries think that the pandemic is finished too quickly, when in fact it’s just another way. There is no time to relax, but I am an optimist and there are already a number of drugs that we anticipate will decrease mortality and severity. The problem is the virus, the people are the solution. There is a bit of misunderstanding about what the vaccine is doing. The vaccine is not interrupting transmission. That’s why vaccines are not enough. We need what we call the “vaccination plus” approach: vaccines and public health measures. And if everyone does their share, we will go to a much better scenario.

Do you have a message for Greek people?

Absolutely. First of all, you have a great country, and, to safeguard the economy, everyone needs to pull together, adhere to the measures and get vaccinated. The last miles are the most difficult. And it helps if someone’s wife or their family starts encouraging them. So, get vaccinated and try to encourage one more person to do the same.