Athens, 9 December 2020
Heads of State, leading scientists and distinguished speakers from around the world were welcomed online by the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and President of “ELPIDA – Association of Friends of Children with cancer” Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis, in the framework of the International Online Scientific Round Table titled “Covid-19 and Childhood Cancer”, held on Tuesday, December 9, 2020.
The aim of this international “summit”: politics, science and diplomacy to join forces and build a bridge of cooperation and protection for children with cancer around the world in the difficult period of the pandemic.
At the opening ceremony, H.E. the President of the Hellenic Republic Ms. Katerina Sakellaropoulou addressed the Meeting, as well as Her Majesty Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, the Prime Minister of Greece Mr. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the First Lady of the Republic of Cyprus Mrs. Andri Anastasiadis, the Director-General of UNESCO Mrs. Audrey Azoulay, the CEO of Pfizer Dr. Albert Bourla, the Professor of Cardiac Surgery of the Imperial College London Sir Magdi Yacoub and the Professor of Oncology Dr. David Khayat, founder and Honorary President of the National Oncology Institute of France.
The following are excerpts from the speakers’ addresses:
In her introductory speech, Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and President of “ELPIDA – Association of Friends of Children with cancer” stressed:
“This initiative introduces the role of health diplomacy in the combat of global health challenges. In these critical times, it is clear that it is our common responsibility, to find common ground and solutions, to cope with the dangers that are common to all humanity. The establishment of the “ELPIDA Affiliations Program” in 2013 was based on our vision, for a world without borders in children’s health. A world, not only of social, but also, of scientific solidarity. From the very first moment of the pandemic, ELPIDA Association responded with extra care for our little patients, following the official guidelines, and with sensitivity towards the daily heroic efforts of the doctors and the nurses to overcome the additional difficulties and threats. I am sure that our initiative, today, will help us find ways in improving the lives of thousands of children and families, facing the double threat of cancer and Covid”.
Mrs. Vardinoyannis thanked from the bottom of her heart all the speakers, spoke warmly about H.E. the President of the Hellenic Republic and the Prime Minister, the First Lady of Cyprus Mrs. Andri Anastasiadis, while she expressed her deep gratitude to H.M. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands not only for her participation in the event, which is a great honour for Greece, but mainly for her great work and contribution to children with cancer.
H.E. the President of the Hellenic Republic Ms Katerina Sakellaropoulou in her address, said: “I welcome this significant initiative, with the certainty that this exchange of expertise, experiences and knowledge will greatly contribute to the protection of our little ones at risk. I want to express the deep gratitude that we all owe to the long and arduous work of the “ELPIDA” Association and particularly Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis, for supporting children with cancer and their families. For thirty years now, like a larger family this association has stood by all those who suffer from cancer, encouraging and inspiring confidence. At this critical moment for all humanity, “ELPIDA” leads by example and makes us all proud”.
H.M. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands said in her address that although scientific evidence shows that COVID-19 is less effective in children, the pandemic poses a serious threat to children with cancer due to the high pressure to national health systems, to social isolation but also to the reduction or even interruption of research programs. H.M. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands concluded in her address: “Therefore, although COVID-19 is not a direct physical threat for children with cancer, it does present a problem when it comes to how a child feels and on the health care professionals and researchers. It is essential to safeguard intensified research and knowledge in order to cure more children and improve their quality of life. I hope and trust that the close collaboration between “ELPIDA” and Greece, the “Princess Máxima Center” in the Netherlands and their partners in the US, Canada and other countries, will contribute to this. I wish you all every success in your endeavors to really improve the well-being and the future of every child in the world in our times“.
H.E. Mr. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek Prime Minister, stressed: “I would like to welcome your initiative that goes hand in hand with the State’s effort to protect our vulnerable fellow citizens, providing special treatment to children, as well as psychological assistance. The pandemic has also shown that early diagnosis must always be accompanied by national awareness, another front on which the State and the “ELPIDA” Association are struggling together. For the last three decades the work of the “ELPIDA” Association has shown the way, the path of cooperation and support. I have to congratulate Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis and her partners. Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that the pandemic will be defeated soon, as, thanks to the hard work of researchers and scientists, we are very close to the vaccine. However, the struggle against cancer will continue with reinforced public health structures, with greater clinical experience, and with many useful conclusions from the arduous management of COVID-19 which is still in progress. This is another area in which the contribution of the “ELPIDA” Association will be decisive. I will be waiting for the findings of your discussion with great interest, as I am certain of its success“.
In a written message, Mrs. Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, stressed:
“Children represent around one quarter of the global population, but they are all of its future.So when a child’s life is at risk, all of us are concerned. For children facing an already exhausting battle, COVID-19 has made a complicated situation even worse – because fighting is difficult when some of your closest allies must keep 1.5 metres away. But COVID-19 has also shown us how humans can find solutions to the most insurmountable problems. Within weeks of the virus being discovered, genome sequences had been published, protocols made public, and results shared widely. Scientists, innovators and the private sector showed what could be achieved when they were free to cooperate without borders.”
Mrs. Andri Anastasiadis, First Lady of Cyprus, noted in her address: “As we unite forces in our joint fight against childhood cancer, we monitor the worrying situation as it evolves during this unprecedented pandemic crisis and its direct and indirect impact on the treatment of cancer patients. Today there is light at the end of the tunnel, that the pandemic will finally end, especially following the positive developments and rapid programs we have witnessed on COVID-19 vaccines. Unfortunately, childhood cancer will still exist. Our young heroes and their families will still need our support”.
Dr Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, was optimistic about the future of cancer research: “I would like to congratulate the organizers for this initiative and especially Mrs. Vardinoyannis for the dedication of the “ELPIDA Association”. Your work shines like a ray of hope in the lives of young patients and their families. And this not only by offering improved access to treatment, but also by understanding, encouraging and supporting them through every step of their difficult journey. We are excited by what we expect to be a decade of unprecedented medical innovation and discovery that will not just improve the condition of patients but transform their lives and the lives of people around them. At Pfizer we steadfastly believe that science will win the battle against cancer, as it has won the battles against noumerous diseases in the past. I’m really proud to be on the same team as all of you in this important work. Together we bring healing, hope and comfort to families around the world“.
Sir Magdi Yacoub, Professor of Cardiac Surgery at the Imperial College London, thanked the organizers for his participation in the discussion, emphasizing that Mrs. Vardinoyannis’ work “was an inspiration for him” and spoke in detail about the effects of the pandemic at the “Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation – Aswan Heart Center”, where cases of cardiovascular disease are treated, but the consequences of the pandemic are similar to those of patients with cancer. The surgeries have decreased dramatically due to the conditions and now only the most urgent cases are treated. “We are also fighting. There is hope” Sir Magdi Yacoub said, who also noted the importance of conducting more rapid tests and, of course, the success of the vaccine.
Oncology Professor David Khayat, Founder and Honorary President of the National Oncology Institute of France, referred to the indirect effects of the pandemic on children with cancer, such as the high burden on the national health systems, the heavy workload of medical and nursing staff, the fear of contagion that can keep some patients away from hospitals. He stressed, however, that the greatest danger lies ahead as the great economic and social crisis that will be created due to the pandemic creates the risk of reduced funding for cancer, especially in developing countries, something that should not be allowed to happen.
Mr. Alexis Papachelas, Editor of the newspaper “KATHIMERINI” was the moderator of the Opening of the Round Table. At the end of the discussion he noted that “the pandemic will end, but the cancer will remain after the pandemic, especially in terms of childhood cancer, we must join forces and do the best we can to support children and their families.“
PART TWO: STRENGTHENING THE “HEALTH DIPLOMACY”
The Second Part was focused on the important role of “Health Diplomacy” during the pandemic. The panel consisted of: the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Nikos Dendias, the Greek Minister of Health Mr. Vassilis Kikilias, the Rector of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens Prof. Meletios – Athanasios Dimopoulos, H.E. the US Ambassador in Greece Mr. Geoffrey Pyatt, H.E. the Ambassador of Canada in Greece Mr. Mark Allen, H.E. the Ambassador of the Netherlands in Greece Mrs. Stella Ronner – Grubačić and the CEO of the Interconnected Pediatric Hospitals “Hagia Sophia” and “P. & A. Kyriakou” Mr. Emmanuel Papasavvas.
The importance of “Health Diplomacy” was emphasized by the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nikos Dendias in his speech: “In the COVID-19 era of uncertainty, fear and seclusion, health diplomacy has played a decisive role in international cooperation to deal with this crisis. The exchange of knowledge and experience among scientists from different countries and continents has indeed proven to be valid. Equally significant has been medical communication between countries with the aim of providing medical assistance. International organizations have decided on a joint response to COVID-19. As we hopefully approaching the end of this long and painful road, health diplomacy is bound to play an instrumental role towards the reorganization of our healthcare systems“.
The Greek Minister of Health, Mr. Vassilis Kikilias, stressed the importance of protecting children with cancer in every way in the conditions created by the pandemic: “The ELPIDA Association has proven in the most exceptional way, how important its help to our children in need has been all these years. It has embraced these children and their families, it has embraced our sweet young friends, supporting their struggle to make it, supporting their intense will to live. In this pandemic, in this public health crisis, the “ELPIDA” Association has contributed even more to informing, encouraging the effort of, caring and treating these children. Particularly children who need specialized treatment, we need to take care of them, we need to protect them, these children must follow personal protection measures, they must obey hygiene and public health rules. All of us have to work together to overcome this crisis and emerge strong and powerful, protecting our fellow citizens in need, especially young children and vulnerable groups.“
The Rector of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Professor Meletios – Athanasios Dimopoulos, spoke about the important role of the research carried out by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, through constructive collaborations with European and American Universities, in the fight against COVID-19. “This is the University we want: a University that ‘builds bridges’, using as a ‘vehicle’ new knowledge and international cooperation “.
An interesting discussion followed, between the Ambassadors of the United States of America, Canada and the Netherlands.
H.E. the US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt emphasized the importance of health diplomacy, citing the example of Pfizer: “When Marianna and I presented Pfizer CEO Dr Albert Bourla with the Prix Galien Award last year, we had no idea what 2020 would bring …. The vaccine issue is a true success of transatlantic cooperation. Pfizer is an American company with a Thessaloniki – born CEO, and it developed its vaccine with the German company BioNTech, run by a husband–and–wife team who are both children of immigrants.”
H.E. the Ambassador of Canada Mr. Mark Allen stressed that both in terms of dealing with the pandemic and the treatment of childhood cancer, scientific discoveries play an important role. “Scientific knowledge knows no borders and diplomacy can make a significant contribution to its further dissemination by creating strong links for health diplomacy.“
H.E. the Ambassador of the Netherlands Mrs. Stella Ronner – Grubačić pointed out that she has noticed a great interest from the Greek side for cooperation with the Netherlands, in many areas. “We have been asked to share knowledge, technology and innovation, something we want too. We in the Netherlands apply what we call a “triple helix”. That is, we achieve the best results when we achieve cooperation between the Public Sector, businesses and research, i.e. universities “, while at the same time the Ambassador mentioned the example of cooperation between the “Marianna V. Vardinoyannis – ELPIDA” Children’s Oncology Unit and Princess Máxima Pediatric Oncology Center of the Netherlands.
The CEO of the Interconnected Pediatric Hospitals “Hagia Sofia” and “P. & A. Kyriakou” Mr. Emmanuel Papasavvas stressed that “it is important to join forces in the period of the pandemic” and that international cooperation is an important weapon in the fight against childhood cancer.
The Moderator of the Second Part, Professor of Public Health at the American College of Greece, Panagiotis Bechrakis, referring to the pandemic, stressed that it is not just a threat to public health “but a real war, and like any war the issue is political. Science does not have all the weapons to deal with it.”
PART THREE: COVID-19 PANDEMIC: CANCER AND CHILDREN
In the Third Part of the Round Table, leading scientists from around the world exchanged experiences and knowledge on the sensitive issue of childhood cancer during the pandemic.
The participants: Professor Anastasia Kotanidou – Director of the ICU of the Hospital “Evangelismos”, who was represented by Dr Elias Siembos – Assistant Professor of Pulmonology, Intensivist, Professor Rob Pieters Medical Director of the “Princess Máxima” Pediatric Oncology Center in the Netherlands, Dr. Eric Bouffet, MD, FRCP (C) – Professor of the Pediatric Clinic of the University of Toronto “The Hospital for Sick Children”, Dr. Theoklis Zaoutis, MD, MSCE – Professor of Pediatrics of the “Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia”, Professor Donald Small, MD, Ph.D. – Director of Pediatric Oncology of “Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine” and Dr Sofia Polychronopoulou, MD, Ph.D. – Pediatric Hematologist – Oncologist, Director of the Department of Pediatric Hematology – Oncology of the Oncology Unit “Marianna V. Vardinoyannis – ELPIDA” at the “Hagia Sofia” Children’s Hospital.
Moderator of the Third Part of the Round Table was Dr Sotiris Tsiodras – Professor of Infectious Diseases and Head of the Committee of Experts against Covid-19, who closed the event with his concluding remarks. Professor Tsiodras stated that “the health system in Greece is facing a huge burden for the first time since March” and that “we have found out what this virus is capable of doing to the human body in just a few days“. Professor Tsiodras spoke in detail about the consequences of the pandemic on children suffering from cancer, for whom he stressed that they are among the most vulnerable groups of the population.