By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The head of the World Health Organization, marking a year since the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported by China, urged countries on Wednesday to ensure that vaccines are made available to people at risk everywhere, not just in rich nations.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, appealed for $4 billion to buy COVID-19 vaccines for distribution in lower and middle-income countries through the COVAX vaccine facility.
"This is the challenge we must rise to in the New Year," Tedros said in a video message issued a day before the first anniversary of China reporting the first cases of pneumonia of unknown origin to the U.N. health agency.
"Vaccines offer great hope to turn the tide of the pandemic. But to protect the world, we must ensure that all people at risk everywhere - not just in countries who can afford vaccines - are immunised," he said.
He also urged countries to combat conspiracy theories and attacks on science, saying "The choice is easy," and the world can "walk the last miles of this crisis together, helping each other along the way, from sharing vaccines fairly, to offering accurate advice, compassion and care" to all who need them.
The COVAX alliance, which aims to secure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries, said on Dec. 18 it had agreements in place for nearly 2 billion doses, roughly doubling its supply, with the first deliveries due in early 2021.
A WHO-led international mission of experts is due to visit China in the first week of January to investigate the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in the central city of Wuhan in December 2019.
More than 81.84 million people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and 1,788,443 have died, according to a Reuters tally.
"The likely scenario is the virus will become another endemic virus, a virus that will remain somewhat of a threat but a very low-level threat in the context of an effective global vaccination programme," Mike Ryan, WHO's top emergency expert, told a press conference on Monday.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Bernadette Baum)