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As the pandemic rages on, we must demand accountability from the World Health Assembly

As the pandemic rages on, we must demand accountability from the World Health Assembly
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You may have never heard of the World Health Assembly, an annual meeting of health ministers from around the world that opens Monday, but your safety and that of future generations may well depend on what happens in this previously obscure international gathering.

In last year’s assembly, the Chinese government pulled off a coup, of sorts. Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a tough investigation into how the pandemic began, the Australian proposal was so watered down that China, which had vehemently opposed the Australian draft, championed the resolution which ultimately passed. That deeply flawed document, and the implementation terms later negotiated between the World Health Organization and China, curtailed the scope of what could be examined. When the joint study team made up of independent international experts and their Chinese government counterparts authorized by this compromised process released their report two months ago, World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom immediately deemed the report insufficient, in part because it failed to adequately examine the hypothesis that the viral outbreak may have originated from an accidental lab incident.

This year’s assembly meets as the pandemic crisis rages on. Although conditions in the United States and a few other countries may be improving, the WHO has estimated that more people are likely to die from COVID-19 globally in the year to come than have died in the past year. This shouldn’t just shock us into action for moral reasons. It should also force us recognize that virus variants that may develop in the world’s most vulnerable places have the very real possibility of putting all of us in danger. There is only one global health and we are all part of it.

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But in the context of rising tensions between the United States and China, realizing this aspiration is easier said than done. In this process, the health ministers meeting Monday will have the tricky job of balancing efforts to focus on the past, present and future.

Focusing on the past, on how this pandemic started, is absolutely essential for prioritizing our response and for setting a global standard of behavior and accountability. Not fully investigating all origin hypotheses — especially a possible lab incident — would allow China to bypass serious accountability. Our governments must now use the World Health Assembly as an essential opportunity to prevent that from happening. Everyone on earth is a stakeholder in understanding what went wrong as an essential first step toward addressing our greatest vulnerabilities.

Focusing on the present is also essential. Current estimates suggest it may take over two years for enough people to be vaccinated globally to begin halting the pandemic. We’ve all witnessed the terrible devastation in places like Brazil and India, and there’s good reason to believe many other parts of the world, including impoverished megacities in Africa and South Asia, could meet the same fate. Here again, leaving these populations unprotected would essentially create a petri dish for the virus and endanger us all. To prevent this, the health ministers will need massively step up efforts to supercharge vaccine production and distribution across the globe, particularly to meet the needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

But even if we establish a process for investigating how the pandemic began and how to end it as soon as possible, we’ll all remain unnecessarily in danger unless we build far stronger global systems for preventing pandemics and enhancing public health more generally.

A recently released report from an international panel commissioned by the WHO, chaired by former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, although imperfect, provided a strong blueprint for next steps. It will be up to national governments, starting with the health ministers meeting at the World Health Assembly, to build that safer future before the next pathogenic outbreak — which could be just around the corner.

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In an ideal world, the health ministers would tackle all three of these challenges at once. But there is a problem: China.

Although the Chinese government is needed as a collaborator in addressing the issues of the present and future, their price for doing so may well be at the expense of honesty and accountability about the past. Because China has levers of influence and control over many governments, there will likely be a tendency to let bygones be bygones and forget the issue of pandemic origins. Other countries, including the United States, also have much accounting to do for failures that made it possible for the pandemic grow as much as it has.

But papering over the past would be a self-defeating and tragic mistake. If we don’t establish a model of accountability, how can we prevent other governments, including our own, from taking unnecessary risks in the future? A house built on weak foundations will eventually collapse.

Now is the moment for fearless honesty by all of us, including our health ministers meeting today. We must demand that our leaders summon the courage to face our toughest challenges head-on. 

Jamie Metzl is a technology futurist, a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, and founder and chair of OneShared.World, a global social movement focusing on facilitating global collective-action. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” (2019). He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.