GENEVA - The World Health Organization insisted Friday it would never endorse a vaccine that has not proven safe and effective, amid concerns over the rush to develop a jab for COVID-19.
Across the globe, governments are hoping to deploy a vaccine as soon as possible against the virus, which has infected well over 26 million people, killed hundreds of thousands, upended millions of lives and wreaked havoc on the global economy.
Under normal procedures, test administrators must wait for months or years to verify that vaccine candidates are safe and efficacious.
But as the pandemic continues to take a devastating toll, there has been massive pressure to roll out a vaccine quickly, sparking concerns that testing standards could be lowered.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted that was not the case.
"WHO will not endorse a vaccine that is not effective and safe," he told a virtual briefing.
He also took issue with the so-called anti-vax movement that has been stoking fears about the vaccines in development.
They might be able to "build narratives to fight against vaccines, but the track record of vaccines tells its own story," he said.
There are currently more than 30 candidate vaccines being tested on humans, with at least eight in final-stage Phase III trials, which typically involve tens of thousands of people.
"It is a very optimistic scenario because there's a huge field of candidates," WHO's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Friday's briefing, emphasizing that only around 10 percent of candidate vaccines succeed.
She explained that the "unprecedented speed of development of COVID vaccines" was largely enabled by prior investments in vaccine platforms for other diseases, which had been repurposed for use against the novel coronavirus.
But she stressed developers must not skip over the various phases of stringent testing.
"No vaccine is going to be mass-deployed before the regulators are confident and the governments are confident and that WHO is confident that these vaccines have met the minimum standards of safety and efficacy."
Tedros voiced hope that one would soon become available "so that the world can get back to normal."
But while the WHO has said it expects to see results from a range of Phase III trials by the end of the year, it on Friday tempered hopes that a vaccine is imminent.
Pointing to the massive challenge of manufacturing and rolling out vaccines to the billions around the world who need them, widespread vaccination is not expected to begin until the middle of 2021.
'MORAL AND ECONOMIC IMPERATIVE'
Tedros stressed that, initially at least, supply would be limited.
"Priority must be given to vaccinating essential workers and those most at risk," he said, stressing that "the first priority must be to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries."
The WHO has set up a mechanism, known as Covax, aimed at ensuring a more equitable distribution of any future vaccines, but has struggled so far to raise the funds needed to provide for the 92 poor countries that have signed up.
But Tedros hailed Friday that 78 high- and upper-middle income countries and economies have now confirmed they will participate, including Germany, Japan, Norway and the European Commission in just the past week.
He pointed out that in an interconnected world, "the virus will continue to kill and the economic recovery globally will be delayed" if poorer countries are unable to gain access to a vaccine.
Sharing equitably, he said, is "not just a moral imperative and a public health imperative, it’s also an economic imperative."