Celebrations marking World Health Day are taking place in the shadow of the coronavirus that has sickened more than 762 million people around the world and killed more than 6.8 million. 

“For the past three years, [the World Health Organization] has coordinated the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the most severe health crisis in a century,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “And as COVID-19 has exposed so brutally, there remain serious gaps in the world’s defenses against epidemics and pandemics. 

“For all these reasons and more, the world needs WHO now more than ever,” he said. 

This year’s World Health Day coincides with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the WHO, which emerged from the ashes of World War II to create a healthier world in the aftermath of what is recognized as the deadliest and most destructive war in human history. 

The vision of attaining a higher standard of health and protecting people from diseases, in many ways, has been achieved. 

Tedros notes that “life expectancy globally, for both sexes, has increased from 46 to 73 years, with the biggest gains in the poorest countries.” 

“Smallpox has been eradicated and polio is on the brink,” he said. 

However, many challenges remain, especially with the emergence of new diseases and deadly pathogens, including Ebola, Marburg, SARS and COVID-19. 

“The world is at increasing risk of new pandemics emerging,” said Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director-general and assistant director-general ad interim for external relations and governance. 

Last month, the WHO’s 194 member states began negotiations on a global accord to prevent and prepare for future pandemic emergencies. Aylward said it was important to reach an agreement as rapidly as possible.

“We hope not just for future generations but today’s generation,” he said. “There is quite a high risk of another pandemic and we want to make sure that we are much, much better prepared for that than we were for this,” he said. 

“And we can be with an accord like the one under negotiation,” Aylward added. 

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on COVID-19, stressed the need to find the origins of the coronavirus. She said a study published by China this week offers some clues as to how infected wild animals at the wet market in Wuhan, China, may have infected humans with the deadly virus, triggering the pandemic. 

“But it does not give us concrete answers,” she said. “There is more information that is out there and we need scientists, public health professionals, governments, to share this information.

“We need answers to understand how this pandemic began because we will get better at preventing the next one,” Van Kerkhove said. 

WHO chief Tedros said he has been pressing China to share information about the origins of COVID-19 because “without full access to the information that China has, you cannot say this or that.” 

“All hypotheses are on the table,” he said. “That is WHO’s position and that is why we have been asking China to be cooperative on this.”

Tedros noted that countries will continue to negotiate the pandemic accord over the next year in preparation for the World Health Assembly in 2024, where it will be presented for adoption.

“No nation can protect itself against future epidemics and pandemics without the engagement and cooperation of all nations,” he added. 

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