Top COVID probe urges bold overhaul of pandemic prevention measures

The United Nations

A prestigious World Health Organization (WHO) appointed panel on Wednesday urged bold action to end the COVID-19 crisis, while also calling for the UN agency to be given greater authority to respond more quickly to future threats.

“Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic”, said former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. “If we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time.”

Launched by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the independent panel issued its findings and recommendations after an eight-month review of lessons learned from the past year.

Insufficient protection

“The tools are available to put an end to the severe illnesses, deaths, and socio-economic damage caused by COVID-19”, said panel co-chair Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, insisting that leaders “have no choice but to act” to stop such a catastrophe happening again.

“The current system – at both national and international levels – was not adequate to protect people from COVID-19. The time it took from the reporting of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in mid-late December 2019 to a Public Health Emergency of International Concern being declared, was too long,” the panel said in a statement on its report, COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic.

‘Lost month’

The panel – whose report contains “the authoritative chronology of what happened” – also insisted that February 2020 was “a lost month”.

This was because “many more countries” could have done more to contain the spread of the new coronavirus after the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January, after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.

“The shelves of storage rooms in the UN and national capitals are full of reports and reviews of previous health crises. Had their warnings been heeded, we would have avoided the catastrophe we are in today. This time must be different,” said Johnson Sirleaf.

Unfit for prevention

Quicker action “would have helped to prevent the global health, social, and economic catastrophe that continues its grip”, the panel noted, adding that “the system as it stands now is clearly unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which could emerge at any time, from developing into a pandemic”.

Among its recommendations – and after highlighting how the coronavirus crisis continues to devastate communities – the panel urged Heads of State to take the lead in supporting proven public health measures to curb the pandemic and implement reforms “to prevent a future outbreak” from spreading globally.

One billion dose call

The panel also advised high-income countries with adequate vaccine supply to commit to provide “at least one billion” doses to the 92 low and middle-income countries in the UN-led equitable vaccine scheme, COVAX, by September 2021.

Major vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers should agree to share intellectual property rights on their jabs, it said, guided by the UN health agency and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“If actions on this don’t occur within three months, a waiver of intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights should come into force immediately”, the panel insisted.

Turning to the world’s wealthiest countries, known as the G7, the panel of leading experts recommended that they should “immediately” stump up 60 per cent of the $19 billion required for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator for vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and strengthening of health systems.

Summit call

Heads of Government should commit to these reforms at a global summit, the panel continued, by adopting a political declaration under the auspices of the UN General Assembly.

Describing its recommendations as potentially “transformative”, the panel highlighted that those least capable of withstanding the pandemic’s myriad shocks had been the worst affected.

“Up to 125 million more people are estimated to have been pushed into extreme poverty, while 72 million more primary school-age children are now at risk of being unable to read or understand a simple text because of school closures,” the experts maintained.

Women have also borne a disproportionate burden, they continued, with gender-based violence at record levels and child marriages on the increase.

Underscoring the economic shock of the past pandemic year, the experts also noted that the world “lost $7 trillion” in economic output – more than the 2019 GDP of the entire African continent ($6.7 trillion)”.

Latest toll

According to WHO there have been more than 159 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, including over 3.3 million deaths since the pandemic began. In its weekly epidemiological update, the UN health agency noted that some 1.2 billion vaccine doses have been administered.

The number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths globally has slightly decreased in the past week, with over 5.5 million cases and over 90,000 deaths.

But “case and death incidences…remain at the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic”, the WHO bulletin cautioned. New weekly cases decreased in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, while the South-East Asia Region continued its upward trajectory, reporting a further six per cent increase on the previous seven-day period.

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