The COVID-19 Virus Has No Borders

John Whyte, MD; Melissa Fleming


April 20, 2021

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JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer at WebMD.

Have you been vaccinated? Well, if you're in the United States, there's a high chance that you either have already been vaccinated, or you're on a list to get vaccinated, or you're starting to figure out how you're going to do that by May. But around the world, the story's not quite the same. So to address this issue that we're not safe until we're all safe, I've asked Melissa Fleming, who heads global communications at the United Nations, to come back and tell us what's going on. Melissa, thanks for your time again today. It's nice to see you.

MELISSA FLEMING: It's great to see you, too, John. And thanks also for thinking about the rest of the world.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, the United Nations has launched a new initiative called Only Together. Tell us about that. Why do we need that right now?

MELISSA FLEMING: Well, scientifically, it's very clear. Only when everyone everywhere is vaccinated will we get out of this pandemic. But how to deliver that message in a way that hits people's hearts? We decided to launch a campaign that allows people to think about, “What will I be able to do when I can get back to the things I love?” And that's the first thing. So people are saying, “I will hug again,” “I will dance again,” “I will go to a concert again.” It's very much engaging with interactions with other people. It's not really materialistic at all. But the secondary message, which for us is the primary message, is for people to then say, “I know that I can only do this when everyone has the chance to be vaccinated.”

JOHN WHYTE: But people don't think like that typically, right? You're thinking about yourself, your community. We don't necessarily have a global perspective.

You had a great piece in Medium, where you talk about having gotten the vaccine, a prioritization based on your cancer history. You're open about it in the piece. And you have this great line where you talk about that it's a spirit of hope and celebration.

But now, you want to turn your attention to those people that are still waiting their turn, especially globally. So talk to our audience as to why do they need to worry about what's happening in the rest of the world. Someone might say, “I'm not going to travel anywhere. I don't do international travel. We need to protect everyone here first.”

MELISSA FLEMING: Well, the virus travels. That's the thing. The virus knows no borders. And I don't think anybody wants to close the borders of the United States or of any country indefinitely. That has major economic consequences, trade consequences, supply consequences. But also just I know that not everybody travels internationally, but the reality is that we are a globalized world that depends and relies on each other.

And the reality is that the COVID-19 virus is opportunistic, and it's looking to cling on to people who are traveling, and to continue to come back. And if it can't latch on to people who've been vaccinated or who have antibodies, it will mutate. So the faster we get everyone around the world -- this is just the strategic self-interest part -- vaccinated, the faster we can all go back to doing what we love.

But the other thing is just it's a moral issue, really. I mean, we have countries, low-income countries that did not have the financial means, the clout, to negotiate deals with pharmaceutical countries early on. And many of them haven't received a single dose. And what we're talking about are front-line health care workers. We can identify with that. Our doctors, our nurses, they haven't been vaccinated. And yet, they're dealing well over a year with people with coronavirus, putting their lives at risk every day. And so this isn't acceptable. We need to get at least them vaccinated. And that's what we're working on --

JOHN WHYTE: How do we do that?

MELISSA FLEMING: -- with the COVAX facility.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah, yeah.


JOHN WHYTE: How do we do that --

MELISSA FLEMING: Yeah, thanks, John.

JOHN WHYTE: And we're still in the middle of -- there's not as much supply as we would like. Hopefully, that's going to change in the next couple of months. But what do we need to be doing now as a society to address this point that it really is a global issue, and that it really can be a false sense of security if you only focus on your individual region, country, or even hemisphere? What do we do now?

MELISSA FLEMING: Well I think it is maybe when one gets the jab themselves, just to think about somebody somewhere else getting it. It could be also people in your own communities who don't have the access and are unable perhaps to navigate the internet. But I think what we're really talking fundamentally about here is a real divide between rich countries and poor countries. And we have the richest countries basically, right now, having given out or given doses to their populations that represent 80% of the vaccines given.

And again, some poor countries not having it at all. And so as I mentioned, it's not going to cut it. We're going to continue to see the virus circulate around our world unless we really roll out the vaccine everywhere. And this can be done. It can be done. It's possible.

And WHO foresaw this, along with a number of other vaccine international organizations. It created this amazing mechanism. It's called the COVAX facility. It's hard to kind of grasp, but it's basically a mechanism that, if it gets enough funding and donations -- and it's already doing this in 57 countries -- it will deliver those vaccines at no cost to the countries that can't afford it. And in the meantime, UN organizations like UNICEF are helping to prepare those countries to receive the vaccine and to deliver them.

So the mechanism is there. The supply and the funding is not. And that's the problem. We're also calling for a doubling of manufacturing. And also, being generous with patents and licenses so countries that have the facilities where they would be capable to manufacture the vaccine, so that they're able to do it locally, as well. So there are ways when there is a will.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to be transparent. You and I wrote an editorial together in The Washington Post about this concept of vaccine nationalism, and why we felt it was misguided, and particularly along the lines that you've talked about. Do you think we're making progress, or are we having more of a global perspective? In many ways, as you point out, you can't address a pandemic that, by its definition, is global and then not address it everywhere around the world. It's somewhat shortsighted, isn't it?

MELISSA FLEMING: It is. It is shortsighted. And in a way, it's also understandable. The nature of this pandemic has sent us all kind of in isolation in our homes, within little pods, within countries closing down borders. And all of this was kind of smart policy to contain the pandemic. And yet, now we're asking for people to think globally, and to really understand that we're not going to indefinitely -- and we haven't even succeeded in that, being able -- I mean, we have the U.K. variant here in New York, the South Africa variant here in New York. The world is globalized, and the virus will travel with the people who bring it. So we need to vaccinate everyone everywhere. It's that simple a concept, but the complexities, of course, are in the details and are in making sure that governments also are thinking about beyond their own citizens.

JOHN WHYTE: There's still a lot of misinformation about vaccinations, also therapeutics. We know that, in many areas of the world, there is greater vaccine hesitancy than there is in the United States, a history of somewhat anti-vaxxers in some regions of the world. You have the Verified campaign. How are you addressing the issue of misinformation, particularly when it comes to vaccination?

MELISSA FLEMING: Well, as soon as the absolute miracle of science, wonderful news came out that there were two vaccines way back in -- I think it was November, and now there are many more that were safe and effective against this horrible pandemic that was upending all of our lives and killing so many people and leaving scores more with this horrible long-term long COVID effects -- what happened was that there was a spike -- it was kind of predictable, but it was really disturbing, and it's ongoing -- of misinformation and conspiracies around the vaccine. Some of it is linked to the same players who were spreading misinformation about COVID itself or the politicians who were politicizing the virus or denying its existence.

So the problem that we have in this day and age is how information spreads. We have the opportunity to spread good information, trusted information, but so, too, do the bad actors who are trying to sow mistrust and confusion among the public. So we at the United Nations, first of all, we're just trying to be that trusted source of information. But of course, to compete, we need to make our information also optimized for social media, interesting, engaging, emotive, even though it is really just dry science and public health information 101, on how vaccines work and how vaccines will protect you and why vaccines are safe.

This kind of information we are trying to put out in competition, but also to fill what we've found are data gaps. So when people are searching for information on the vaccine, they're very often not coming up with the most trusted sources first, but are confronted with pseudo experts who produced films that are really designed to make you think that this vaccine is there to cause mass destruction, rather than bring about a solution and, finally, protection to you, your loved ones, your communities, and our world.

JOHN WHYTE: And you provide guidance in terms of how to help people check out information -- and we can put it up on the screen -- particularly in terms of don't share information that may be inaccurate. So you talk about who made it, what is the source, where did it come from, why are you sharing this, when was it published, all very good strategies and questions to keep in mind before we share it to all of our friends, real and virtual.

Melissa, we chatted about 4 months ago. I'm going to call you 4 months from now and chat again. What are we going to talk about in 4 months?

MELISSA FLEMING: Unfortunately, John, I think we're still going to be talking about vaccine equity. And I think we're also going to be talking about vaccine hesitancy. In 4 months from now, we'll be in a place where, just amazingly, in the country we're both in, in the United States, all adults who want to be vaccinated will be vaccinated. But we'll have many parts of the world where people just haven't seen a vaccine or don't even expect one for a year or two to come. I mean, I hope --

JOHN WHYTE: A year? Wow.

MELISSA FLEMING: Well, we are talking now in some countries. The goal of COVAX right now is, conservatively, to have 20% of 100 poor and low-income countries vaccinated by the end of this year, their health workers and highly vulnerable people. We hope that that could be 30%. It all depends on donations. But we know that a 30% vaccination in a country of a population is nowhere near what you need to get herd immunity. So we're going to have that hopefully here in the U.S. if we get over some of the holdouts and the hesitancy, have reached what Dr. Fauci has said is needed for herd immunity, around 80% vaccinated.

But in other countries, that's going to be far off. And so we're going to need to continue -- the U.S., Canada, the U.K., other countries -- they have more doses, sometimes five times more they've procured than what's needed for their populations. So hopefully, more and more countries, rich countries, will be sharing these doses so that other countries will be able to benefit, as well, as an addition. And more manufacturers will have the opportunity to produce their own locally so that they can roll those out fast to the populations. We're only going to be safe until all of us are safe.

JOHN WHYTE: I was going to say that. You stole my line.

MELISSA FLEMING: It's not my line. It's your line. It's the line. I'm really glad --

JOHN WHYTE: That's right.

MELISSA FLEMING: -- to hear it's a line that's spreading.

JOHN WHYTE: That's right.

MELISSA FLEMING: And people are starting to get it into their ears --

JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely.

MELISSA FLEMING: -- as a kind of mantra.

JOHN WHYTE: So we can be hopeful, which is how we started all, your shot of hope, but still a lot of work to do. Melissa Fleming, I want to thank you for all that you're doing to communicate good and accurate information around the world about how we end this pandemic.

MELISSA FLEMING: Well, John, I want to thank you for communicating good and accurate medical, science-based information to the populations in the U.S. and around the world.

JOHN WHYTE: And if you have questions about COVID, questions about the vaccine or therapeutics, drop us a line. You can email me at, as well as post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thanks for watching.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on April 20, 2021

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