WHO’s Dr. Michael Ryan on Variants, Vaccines, and Global Recovery Efforts

The WHO’s Dr. Michael Ryan shares insights on COVID-19 variants, vaccines, and public and private sectors partnering for global recovery.


Air Date: June 24, 2021

Moderator: Suzanne P. Clark, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Featured Guests: Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, Health Emergencies Programme, World Health Organization

As restrictions and lockdown orders loosen across the globe, it’s important to talk about the steps to moving forward. New variants are monitored closely as the largest vaccine distribution effort in history continues throughout the world.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation spoke with Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director at the World Health Organization (WHO), about vaccines, current variants, and how the private and public sector can work together to assist in global recovery efforts.

Effectiveness of the Vaccine Against Transmission Is Unclear as Variants Spread

As more of the population receives the COVID-19 vaccine, many are still wondering how effective the vaccines are against the virus and its variants.

Dr. Ryan states that these vaccines are highly effective and protect against the symptoms of COVID-19. He also notes there are inconsistencies in whether the vaccine keeps one from spreading the virus.

“It's not so certain to what extent do the current [vaccines] protect against becoming infected, or if you become infected ... your chances of passing that disease onto someone else,” explained Dr. Ryan.

He notes that no vaccine is 100% effective, but data shows the mRNA vaccines help prevent severe illness and death that overwhelms healthcare systems.

“These vaccines are still hugely effective in the job they have to do,” he added.

Experts Say New Variants Are to Be Expected

The world is currently seeing new and highly contagious variants of the original COVID-19 virus (such as the Delta variant), but Dr. Ryan said this is expected due to the virus's ability to reproduce.

“It's like making a coding error in writing a computer program,” he explained. “If the virus has … millions of millions of opportunities to reproduce, [it may] hit on a formula ... that gives it an advantage.”

When this happens, said Dr. Ryan, a variant is created that possibly has a higher transmission rate with either a lower or a higher fatality rate.

“Very often, we see diseases that emerge that can [actually become] milder as they adapt to humans,” he said. “[However], they can also become more transmissible and more deadly at the same time. And that's just a matter of chance.”

“The virus is in the race of its life to survive, and we're in the race of our lives to suppress that transmission,” Dr. Ryan continued. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to put a barrier between us and them.”

The Public and Private Sector Must Work Together to Aid Global Recovery Efforts

Dr. Ryan stressed that private sector innovation is crucial to aiding the recovery efforts as restrictions are lifted.

“We need the private sector to continue research and innovation in bringing new products,” he said, also noting the success of the healthcare industry across the globe relies on the partnership of the public and private sectors.

“Healthcare is no longer the purview of a state-based system,” added Dr. Ryan. “It requires a partnership of civil society, of the public system and of the private system.”

Developing Countries Must Strengthen Their Systems to Survive the Pandemic

While highly developed countries such as the United States and Europe are equipped to handle case surges, Dr. Ryan states that it’s important to use their resources to help developing countries with their own caseloads.

“The advantage that many developing countries have is their systems are simpler and more direct, but the problem is they're under-geared,” he said. “They don't have the materials, they don't have trained health workers, and it's very hard for them to surge effectively.”

“In many countries in the world, healthcare delivery is delivered by private systems,” he continued. “So the private sector is a hugely important partner in being able to deliver comprehensive medical services end-to-end, but the system has got to work.”


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