Myriad failures in both preparedness and response led to the devastating coronavirus pandemic, the first major assessment of the world’s response has found.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response’s report, released Wednesday, highlights crucial mistakes in January and February 2020. It found that the systems in place were too slow to respond to the alert from China in December 2019, and that countries’ “wait and see” approach in February led to them being unable to contain the pandemic.
“The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented,” said the panel’s co-chair and former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a briefing to journalists ahead of the publication of the report. Sirleaf said that a failure to learn from the past was also to blame, with reviews of previous health emergencies gathering dust on government shelves and in U.N. basements. Most countries of the world were “simply not prepared for a pandemic,” she said. “They had not stress-tested their systems or invested enough in supplies and human resources,” Sirleaf added.
The existing International Health Regulations, which set out how countries must respond to public health events and specify when a declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern can be made, “serve to constrain rather than facilitate rapid action,” said Sirleaf. The hard-hitting indictment was echoed by Helen Clark, the panel’s other co-chair and former prime minister of New Zealand, who said that the World Health Organization was “hindered and not helped” by the regulations, which are “not conducive to taking a precautionary approach.”
A separate review committee is assessing the functioning of the International Health Regulations, but Wednesday’s scathing assessment is sure to color the committee’s findings.
However, Clark said that even under the current system, a public health emergency of international concern could have been declared by January 22. The WHO made this declaration only on January 30.
The following month of February was a period “of lost opportunity,” she said, with some countries waiting until hospitals and ICUs were filling up before they took action. By then it was “too late” to avert the pandemic’s impact, said Clark.
More broadly, there was a “lack of global leadership and coordination,” with “geopolitical tensions and nationalism weakening the multilateral system,” said Clark.
The panel had a series of urgent recommendations, including high-income countries committing to provide at least 1 billion vaccine doses to the countries waiting for vaccines under COVAX, and for vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers to agree to voluntary licensing and technology transfer. If this doesn’t happen in three months, the panel says a waiver on IP under the TRIPS agreement “should come into force immediately.”
Its longer-term recommendations call for the creation of a Global Health Threats Council led by heads of state and government, which would ensure that political commitments to pandemic preparedness are maintained between emergencies.
The panel also reiterated the long-standing and widely held view that the WHO is underpowered and underfunded, saying that member countries’ fees need to increase to two-thirds of the WHO base program budget. The authority and independence of the director general’s role should also be beefed up, and they should stand for only one seven-year term. Currently, the term is five years, but officeholders can be elected for multiple terms.
A new multibillion-dollar International Pandemic Financing Facility should also be established, ultimately enabling it to disburse between $50 billion and $100 billion during a crisis, said the panel.
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