WHO appointed panel slams slow response to Covid-19 in 2020, seeks more powers for UN body
A World Health Organization (WHO) appointed panel has concluded that countries around the world could have done more in early 2020 to contain the spread of the Coronavirus and called for the UN body to be given more powers to respond to future pandemics.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which was appointed by WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in response to a World Health Assembly resolution seeking an independent and impartial review of the current pandemic, also called on the world community to end the Covid-19 pandemic by implementing recommendations to redistribute, fund and increase the availability of vaccines.
The panel issued its findings and recommendations on Wednesday after an eight-month review of lessons learned during the past year.
“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. “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.”
The panel described February 2020 as “a lost month” because “many more countries” could have done more to contain the spread of the new Coronavirus after WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern on January 30 after the initial outbreak at Wuhan in China.
Quicker action “would have helped to prevent the global health, social and economic catastrophe that continues its grip”, the panel said, 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”.
In a statement on its report, “Covid-19: Make it the Last Pandemic”, the panel said: “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.”
Johnson Sirleaf added: “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.”
India, which was elected chair of WHO’s executive board last year, has pushed for reforms of the UN health body on the grounds that it had not reacted speedily to the spread of the Coronavirus.
The panel asked high-income countries with adequate vaccine supplies to commit to provide at least one billion doses to 92 low and middle income countries covered by the WHO-backed COVAX facility by September 2021.
Major vaccine producing countries and manufacturers should agree to share intellectual property rights on their doses, guided by the UN health agency and the World Trade Organization (WTO), it said.
“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 said.
The G7 or the world’s wealthiest countries should immediately allocate 60% of the $19 billion required for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) for vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and strengthening health systems, the panel recommended.
As part of reforms to prevent a future outbreak becoming a pandemic, the panel called for establishing a “Global Health Threats Council” that will “maintain political commitment to pandemic preparedness and response and hold actors accountable. It said countries should adopt a “Pandemic Framework Convention” within the next six months.
The panel recommended a new global system for surveillance, based on full transparency, should be established to provide WHO with the “authority to publish information about outbreaks with pandemic potential on an immediate basis without needing to seek approval and to dispatch experts to investigate at the shortest possible notice”.
Countries should invest in national preparedness “now as it will be too late when the next crisis hits”, and all governments should review preparedness plans and allocate necessary funds and people to be prepared for another health crisis.
The current ACT-A should be transformed into a global platform for delivering global public goods, including vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and supplies, swiftly and equitably worldwide by shifting from a market model, the panel said.
The panel also recommended that the world community should strengthen the authority and financing of WHO, including by developing a new funding model that increases member state fees, and create an “International Pandemic Financing Facility” that will have the capacity to mobilise long term contributions of about $5 billion to $10 billion a year to finance ongoing readiness.
The Independent Panel said 125 million people were estimated to have been pushed into extreme poverty and 72 million primary school-age children were at risk of being unable to read because of school closures.
According to WHO, there have been more than 159 million Coronavirus infections globally, including more than 3.3 million deaths, since the pandemic began. In its weekly epidemiological update, WHO said some 1.2 billion vaccine doses had been administered so far.
India is currently grappling with a devastating second wave of the pandemic that has seen Coronavirus infections surge well past the 350,000-mark for several days.