The next day, WHO began working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to formulate an international response. By January 10th, WHO issued a comprehensive package of guidance to countries on how to detect, test, and manage potential COVID-19 cases, and how to best protect health workers.
Throughout the rest of the winter and into the spring and summer, the UN mobilized a diverse set of resources to understand and combat the pandemic. The effort, led by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and WHO, emphasized the need for countries to act in concert and outlined ways to suppress transmission of the virus, safeguard people’s lives and their livelihoods, and learn from the crisis to build back. As Guterres said, COVID-19 “is more than a health crisis. It is a human crisis.”
The scientific advances and mobilization of all of society in response to this pandemic have come about because of solidarity. The solidarity exemplified when the Secretary-General worked in tandem with the U.S. Mission to the UN to donate 250,000 face masks to New York City frontline health workers facing the brunt of the crisis in late March. That same solidarity brought together 100 American companies and hundreds of thousands of Americans to donate to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund that helped to produce life-saving therapeutics and diagnostics and paved the way for the rapid vaccine discoveries.
One year later, the full extent of the impact of COVID-19 is still not clear. Infectious disease can travel around the world in as little as 36 hours, so until a vaccine is readily available, the world must keep its guard up. An important mechanism to address the availability of vaccines and other essential health products was launched in April 2020–the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A).
This innovative partnership is not a new organization, but rather a coordinating mechanism bringing together governments, health organizations, scientists, businesses, civil society, and philanthropists to develop health products and ensure they are distributed equitably. For example, ACT-A’s vaccine pillar, known as COVAX, aims to distribute 2 billion vaccines by the end of 2021 to countries on the basis of need, rather than GDP. The UN will be central to ACT-A’s success, along with the Global Fund, Gavi, and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, in developing, testing, and distributing new diagnostics, drugs and technologies, and strengthening health systems.
U.S. participation in this initiative is critical to the ability of lower-income countries to access quality vaccines, thereby ending the pandemic. According to a report from the Gates Foundation, U.S. involvement in ACT-A would “expand the ability of poorer countries to secure doses from the pool of promising vaccine candidates currently being developed by U.S. companies.”
U.S. funding and engagement also makes sense from an economic perspective. It is estimated that the global trade and tourism sector will lose $12 trillion over 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. If COVAX is fully funded and its goals are met, however, the costs incurred by governments will be made up within 36 hours of a return to full economic activity. The Gates analysis notes that the U.S. stands to gain more under this scenario “than any other country with $78.8 billion in economic benefits at risk in 2020-21 and $207.1 billion at risk from 2020-25” if we do not act.
With COVID-19 impacting 193 countries around the world, the United Nations developed a large-scale response across its various agencies to combat the crisis.