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13 Nov, 2020

WHO Director-General hails Thai success in containing Covid-19, urges world to follow suit

Geneva — World Health Organisation Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has hailed Thailand’s success in battling the Covid-19 virus as “an excellent example that with a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, comprehensive approach, this virus can be contained – even without a vaccine.”

Delivering his closing remarks at the World Health Assembly on 13 November 2020, Dr Tedros said that Thailand’s low rate of Covid-19 infections and deaths “speak for themselves” and did not happen by accident.

He said the success was the result of Thailand’s commitment to investing in its public health infrastructure, the network of more than 1 million village health volunteers, and the fact that the country “has also learned the lessons of the past, including its experience with SARS in 2003.”

“I urge all countries to follow Thailand’s lead. No country can say it was well-enough prepared for COVID-19, or that it has no lessons to learn.”

The full text of the Director General’s remarks follow:

WHO Director-General’s closing remarks at the World Health Assembly – 13 November 2020

13 November 2020

Your Excellency General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand,

Your Excellency Keva Bain, President of the World Health Assembly,

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, dear colleagues and friends,

First of all, I would like to convey my deep appreciation to His Excellency the Prime Minister for his expression of support for WHO.

Thailand is an excellent example that with a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, comprehensive approach, this virus can be contained – even without a vaccine.

Thailand’s numbers speak for themselves. Although, as the Prime Minister said, it was the first country outside China to report a case of COVID-19, it has reported less than 4000 cases and just 60 deaths, with a population of 70 million and one of the world’s largest and most crowded cities.

This is no accident.

Forty years ago, Thailand made a commitment to investing in its public health infrastructure, and has made continued investments in strengthening its capacities under the International Health Regulations.

The country’s network of more than 1 million village health volunteers, who are the eyes and ears of the health system in communities, played a critical role in the response.

Thailand has also learned the lessons of the past, including its experience with SARS in 2003.

But Thailand is also learning the lessons of the present, by working with WHO’s country office to conduct an intra-action review, to understand how it can further strengthen its public health defences.

I urge all countries to follow Thailand’s lead. No country can say it was well-enough prepared for COVID-19, or that it has no lessons to learn.

There are many other countries with similar stories to tell.

There is no doubt that a vaccine will be a vital tool for controlling the pandemic, and we’re encouraged by the preliminary results of clinical trials released this week.

Never in history has vaccine research progressed so quickly. We must apply the same urgency and innovation to ensuring that all countries benefit from this scientific achievement.

But we have a long way to go. The world cannot put all its eggs in one basket, and neglect the many other tools at our disposal that countries like Thailand have shown are effective for bringing this virus under control.

The virus itself has not changed significantly, and nor have the measures needed to stop it.

We know what works.

First, know your epidemic and do the basics well. Find, isolate, test and care for cases. Trace and quarantine their contacts.

And second, engage and empower communities to protect themselves and others with the full range of measures: physical distance, avoiding crowds, ventilation, hand hygiene, and masks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the consequences of chronic under-investment in public health.

This health crisis has ignited a socio-economic crisis that has impacted billions of lives and livelihoods and undermined global stability and solidarity.

Returning to the status quo is not an option.

We don’t just need more investment in public health. We must also rethink how we value health.

The time has come for a new narrative that sees health not as a cost, but an investment that is the foundation of productive, resilient and stable economies.

To start building that narrative, today I am proud to announce that we are establishing a new Council on the Economics of Health for All, to focus on the links between health and sustainable, inclusive and innovation-led economic growth.

The council will comprise leading economists and health experts, and will be chaired by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Professor of the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at the University of London, and the Founding Director of the university’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.

The Council is expected to hold its first virtual session in the coming weeks, and will discuss its work plan and mode of operation.

The pandemic has also shown that there is an urgent need for a globally agreed system for sharing pathogen materials and clinical samples, to facilitate the rapid development of medical countermeasures as global public goods.

It can’t be based on bilateral agreements, and it can’t take years to negotiate.

We are proposing a new approach that would include a repository for materials housed by WHO in a secure Swiss facility; an agreement that sharing materials into this repository is voluntary; that WHO can facilitate the transfer and use of the materials; and a set of criteria under which WHO would distribute them.

I would like to thank His Excellency Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health of Thailand, and His Excellency Roberto Speranza, Minister of Health of Italy, for their support for this concept, and for their willingness to provide materials under this new framework, and to be pioneers of this approach.

I would also like to thank His Excellency Federal Councillor Alain Berset, Head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs of Switzerland, and the Swiss Confederation, for offering a BSL 4 lab to support this initiative.

Other countries have expressed interest in the idea, which we look forward to discussing with Member States, alongside other initiatives including the Universal Health and Preparedness Review, and the Council of Economics of Health for All.

Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

I wish to thank all Member States for their flexibility, goodwill and pragmatism in adapting to the constraints of dealing with a large agenda virtually, across multiple time zones.

I would also like to thank our staff who have worked incredibly hard to make this Assembly happen and overcome many technical and logistical challenges, and especially the moderators, who managed the flow of interventions and ensured everyone was heard.

Despite the challenges, this Assembly has been very productive, as you would agree with me.

You have approved a comprehensive resolution on emergency preparedness;

a new roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030;

a new roadmap for neglected tropical diseases;

a resolution on scaled-up action on epilepsy and other neurological disorders;

and you declared 2021 as the International Year of Health and Care Workers, who deserve our salute.

Through a written silence procedure you have also adopted the Immunization Agenda 2030;

the Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer as a public health problem;

the Global Strategy for TB Research and Innovation;

the Decade of Healthy Ageing;

the Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property;

And resolutions on eye care and food safety.

Each of these represents an urgent health priority that affects the lives of millions of people, and which increases the demands on, and expectations of, WHO.

We look forward to working with all Member States in the coming weeks and months to build a WHO with increased capabilities and the resources to meet these demands and expectations.

We in the Secretariat remain committed to supporting you at all three levels of the Organization to deliver on the commitments you have made.

And we will continue to implement our transformation agenda to build the modern, agile WHO the world needs.

We count it an honour to work for this great Organization, and to work with you to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.

Together, we are one WHO.

I thank you.