World Health Organization – Briefing on COVID-19

Media briefing on COVID-19 – 4 September 2020


Main messages of the WHO Director-General’s opening remarks

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Yesterday I had the honour of addressing foreign ministers from G20 countries.

The focus of the discussion was on how together we can reopen societies, economies and borders.

This is something WHO supports wholeheartedly.

Lockdowns are a blunt instrument that have taken a heavy toll in many countries.

With the right mix of targeted and tailored measures, further national lockdowns can be avoided.

Several countries are using a data-driven approach to drive a targeted response.

This is allowing them to open up carefully and safely, while remaining ready to respond rapidly to any new clusters or amplifying events.

Once again, I want to reiterate the four priorities we urge countries to focus on:

Prevent amplifying events.

Empower people to protect themselves and others.

Focus on the public health basics.

And protect the vulnerable, including older people and those with underlying conditions.


COVID-19 has preyed on people with non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and respiratory disease.

Globally, NCDs and their risk factors are increasing vulnerability to COVID-19 infection and the likelihood of worse outcomes, including in younger people. 

The odds of developing severe COVID-19 have been found to be as much as seven times higher in patients with obesity.

Smokers have been found to be one-and-a-half times more likely to have severe complications from COVID-19.

And a systematic review has shown that people with diabetes are between 2-4 times more likely to have severe symptoms or die from COVID-19.

The pandemic has underscored the urgency of addressing NCDs and their risk factors.

Next week is Global Week for Action on NCDs, which aims to increase accountability by governments, policy makers, industries, academia, and civil society to reduce the NCD burden globally and increase health and equality.

Today, I am pleased to launch a set of publications that have been developed under the UN NCD Inter-Agency Task Force that call for urgent action on NCDs during and beyond the pandemic.

First, we call for the voices of people living with NCDs to be heard in all discussions about policies that directly affect them.

Second, we call for global financing instruments to be extended to low-income countries that request support for NCDs.

And third, we call for constructive dialogue partnership with the private sector.


Because people with NCDs are at high risk of severe COVID-19, finding effective therapeutics for these patients is a high priority.

Earlier this week, WHO issued new guidance on the use of corticosteroids to treat patients with severe COVID-19.

Evidence shows that corticosteroids can be life-saving for patients on oxygen and ventilators.

However, corticosteroids do not help patients with mild or moderate disease, and can be harmful.

WHO therefore recommends the use of corticosteroids only in patients who are severely or critically ill.

These guidelines combine the highest scientific standards with the urgency needed to respond to this pandemic.


Providing guidance on therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines is one important part of WHO’s work.

Ensuring access to those products is another.

In the coming months, we all hope to have good news about a vaccine for COVID-19.

But if and when we have an effective vaccine, we must also use it effectively.

In time, as production increases, we want all people everywhere to have access to vaccines.

But initially, when supply is limited, priority must be given to vaccinating essential workers and those most at risk – including older people and those with underlying conditions.

In other words, the first priority must be to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries.

This is not just a moral imperative and a public health imperative, it’s also an economic imperative.

In our interconnected world, if people in low- and middle-income countries miss out on vaccines, the virus will continue to kill and the economic recovery globally will be delayed.

So, using vaccines as a global public good is in the national interest of each and every country.

Vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it.

The COVAX Facility is the agreed international mechanism for ensuring equitable global access to vaccines. It is solidarity in action.

COVAX guarantees access to the world’s largest portfolio of vaccine candidates.

Our partner, the Coalition for Epidemic Innovations and Preparedness – CEPI – is supporting nine candidate vaccines that will be made available to the Facility if successful, seven of which are in clinical trials.

We’re also in discussions about four other promising vaccines.

Another nine candidates that are in earlier stages of development are being evaluated for inclusion in the Facility.

We are delighted that 78 high- and upper-middle income countries and economies have now confirmed they will participate in the COVAX Facility, and the number is growing. I urge those who have not yet joined to do so by the 18th of September.

I would like to thank those countries and economies who have announced publicly they are joining COVAX this week – Germany, Japan, Norway and the European Commission.

Of course, many more countries have joined and we look forward to being able to share the full list in due course.


Although we still face many challenges, WHO is encouraged by the progress we have made against this new virus in 8 months.

With national unity and global solidarity, we can and will end this pandemic.

I repeat, with national unity and global solidarity, we can and will end this pandemic.

I thank you.

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