Washington, D.C., 7 June 2023 (PAHO) - The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, said during a conversation yesterday organized by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. that ensuring equitable access to vaccines, medicines, and health technologies is one of the lessons from the pandemic and one of the priorities for his term, which began in February 2023.
“In Latin America and the Caribbean, almost 90% of medical products are imported,” explained the PAHO Director, who stressed the importance of “reducing this dependence on imports and the vulnerability” that comes with it, due to potential fluctuations in the global supply chain.
According to Dr. Barbosa, “One of the main mistakes we experienced as a public health system during the pandemic was that we were not able to ensure equitable access to vaccines, ventilators, medicines, and personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. That’s why we need to be better prepared for the next pandemic.”
The PAHO Director thought the way forward was to boost the region’s production capacity, which can be done through projects that are “strategic, viable, and sustainable.”
Dr. Barbosa highlighted the establishment in 2022 of the Regional Platform on Access and Innovation for Health Technologies, a PAHO/WHO collaborative project that is facilitating technology transfer and boosting regional production of messenger RNA vaccines in Brazil and Argentina. “This will benefit all countries in the region, because vaccines will be offered through PAHO’s Revolving Fund,” he said.
He also noted that one of the first decisions he made when he took the helm at PAHO was to adjust the institution’s organizational chart “to better reflect countries’ priorities and the lessons and priorities from the pandemic,” such as the need to strengthen and expand digital health and to ensure equitable access to vaccines.
One of those changes was to create a new department to head up innovation and access to medicines and health technologies that will focus, among other things, on regulatory considerations and the Regional Platform on Access and Innovation for Health Technologies.
During the conversation at the Center for Global Development, Dr. Barbosa also mentioned the new pandemic instrument being discussed at the World Health Organization (WHO) that the countries of the world were expected to approve in 2024. For the PAHO Director, having a new mechanism that establishes clear rules in the event of a pandemic can improve equitable access to vaccines and medical supplies.
“One of my commitments is to support all countries in the region so they actively participate in this global debate, because we will not have another chance,” he said. Dr. Barbosa noted that after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emergency, the International Health Regulations were amended in 2005, and after the influenza A(H1N1) pandemic, the countries agreed on the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, which took effect in 2011.
“If we do not enshrine the lessons learned from COVID-19 in the new pandemic instrument in 2024, unfortunately we will need to wait for the next crisis” to be better prepared, he warned.
Dr. Barbosa also spoke about the need for equitable distribution of WHO funds among the regions. At the recent World Health Assembly, the countries approved a 20% increase in their assessed contributions to the organization. “Although PAHO has received an increase in contributions from WHO in recent years, the distribution is still inequitable,” he said.
The PAHO Director considered it key that the WHO central level allocate more resources to the regions and country offices to strengthen technical cooperation in the field.