New Delhi/Geneva: The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis and it has to be met with an unprecedented global response. To accelerate the development, production and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics for the dreaded disease, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has united with many partners to launch the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, or the ACT Accelerator.

But this landmark collaboration is still miles away from success as the WHO-led global response to COVID-19 needs $31.3 billion for therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics over the next 12 months, including two billion doses of vaccines. The money would go to the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, or ACT-Accelerator, a ground-breaking global collaboration initiated in April to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. It was set up in response to a call from G20 leaders in March and launched by the WHO, EC, France and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April 2020.

The ACT-Accelerator is not a decision-making body or a new organization, but it works to speed up collaborative efforts among existing organisations to end the pandemic. It is a framework for collaboration that has been designed to bring key players around the table with the goal of ending the pandemic as quickly as possible by reducing COVID-19 mortality and severe disease through accelerated development, equitable allocation, and scaled up delivery of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, thereby protecting health systems and restoring societies and economies in the near term.

It draws on the experience of leading global health organisations which are tackling the world’s toughest health challenges, and who, by working together, are able to unlock new and more ambitious results against COVID-19. Its members share a commitment to ensure all people have access to all the tools needed to defeat COVID-19 and to work with unprecedented levels of partnership to achieve it. The ACT-Accelerator has four areas of work: diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and the health system connector.

The tools developed will benefit the whole world, and by saving lives and reducing severe COVID-19 disease, contribute to the goal of protecting health systems and restoring full societal and economic activity globally in the near term, and facilitating high-level control of COVID-19 disease in the medium term.

The consolidated investment case calls for $31.3 billion over the next 12 months. $3.4 billion has been contributed to date, resulting in a funding gap of $27.9 billion, of which $13.7 billion is urgently needed. Pillar plans show a path to the accelerated development, equitable allocation, and scaled up delivery of 500 million tests to low-and middle-income countries (LMIC’s) by mid-2021, 245 million courses of treatments to LMICs by mid-2021, and 2 billion vaccine doses, of which 1 billion will be purchased for LMICs, by the end of 2021.

‘‘We will only halt COVID-19 through solidarity. Countries, health partners, manufacturers, and the private sector must act together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody. Our shared commitment is to ensure all people have access to all the tools to prevent, detect, treat and defeat COVID-19. No country and no organisation can do this alone. The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator brings together the combined power of several organizations to work with speed and scale,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General at the launch of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, recently.

Since January, WHO has been working with thousands of researchers all over the world to accelerate and track vaccine development - from developing animal models to clinical trial designs, and everything in between. It has also developed diagnostics that are being used all over the world. It is coordinating a global trial on the safety and efficacy of four therapeutics against COVID-19. The world needs these tools, and it needs them fast. Past experience has taught us that even when tools are available, they have not been equally available to all. We cannot allow that to happen, added Tedros.

“The good news is we have over 200 vaccine candidates at some stage of clinical development, 15 of them are now on human clinical trials,” said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.

According to her, at least four Chinese companies are already going from phase two to phase three trials for vaccine candidates and the WHO is in the process of exchanging documents, signing confidentiality agreements with them in order to provide advice and support, and facilitate conducting of clinical trials.

During the recent technical update and virtual media briefing on ACT-Accelerator, moderated by Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO Senior Adviser and Head of the ACT-Accelerator Coordination Hub and facilitated by Ms Fadéla Chaib, communication officer WHO - Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO; Sir Andrew Witty, Director-General Special Envoy for the ACT-Accelerator; Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General Special Envoy for the ACT-Accelerator; Dr Peter Sands, Executive Director, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Dr Philippe Duneton, Executive Director ad interim, Unitaid; Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, WHO; Dr Mariangela Simao, Assistant Director General for Access to Medicines, Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals, WHO; Dr Muhammad Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population, World Bank spoke their mind.

The pandemic had already infected more than 10 million people worldwide, including more than 500,000 deaths. According to the latest WHO numbers, as of 5.30am IST on Saturday, the total infected population worldwide had reached 10,922,324, including 523,011 deaths.

‘‘MENTAL HEALTH, SUICIDE PREVENTION NEEDS GREATER ATTENTION DURING PANDEMIC’’

With the COVID-19 pandemic still accelerating and impacting people in multiple ways, WHO has called upon countries in South-East Asia Region to pay greater attention to mental health and suicide prevention. “Hitting lives and livelihoods, the pandemic is causing fear, anxiety, depression and stress among people. Social distancing, isolation and coping with perpetually evolving and changing information about the virus has both triggered and aggravated existing and pre-existing mental health conditions which need urgent attention,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, WHO South-East Asia Region.

Stigma related to COVID-19 infection may also lead to feelings of isolation and depression, the regional director said, adding that another precipitating factor impacting mental health amidst COVID-19 could be domestic violence, which is reported to have increased during lockdowns imposed by almost all countries in the Region. Early identification of mental health conditions, recognition of suicidal behaviours and appropriate management through a multi-sectoral approach is important, even as we continue to focus on arresting further spread of the pandemic, Dr Khetrapal Singh said.

Suicide claims almost 800,000 lives every year globally and is the leading cause of death among young people aged 15-29 years of age. Evidence shows that for each adult who dies of suicide there are more than 20 others attempting suicide. The WHO South-East Asia Region accounts for 39% of global suicide mortality.