Panel blasts COVID-19 response: 'Global political leadership was absent'

Panel blasts COVID-19 response: 'Global political leadership was absent'
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A prominent panel of political and public health leaders has blasted the international and national response to the coronavirus pandemic, labeling slow and tepid reactions around the world as a preventable disaster that cost millions of lives.

In a report issued Wednesday, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response called on wealthier countries to do more to help the world end the pandemic and to bolster the global health systems meant to act as a front-line defense to prevent future outbreaks.

“COVID-19 remains a global disaster. Worse, it was a preventable disaster,” the report says.

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It is clear, the report found, that the world was not prepared, even after decades of warnings that a serious pathogen was poised to sweep the globe.

“The Independent Panel has found weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response. Preparation was inconsistent and underfunded. The alert system was too slow — and too meek,” the panelists wrote. “Global political leadership was absent.”

The panel, brought together by the World Health Organization (WHO), was led by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia, and Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand. Both former leaders have extensive experience in international organizations, Sirleaf at the World Bank and Clark at the United Nations.

The report praised clinicians on the ground in Wuhan, China, who identified what they believed was a novel pathogen in December 2019. But it criticized the formal procedures for alerting other nations, an implicit rebuke of China’s early moves to downplay the severity of the virus and to censure those who sounded the alarm, costing the world valuable time to prepare. 

Even after the World Health Organization itself issued a public health emergency of international concern, the highest level of warning it can offer, “too many countries took a ‘wait and see’ approach rather than enacting an aggressive containment strategy that could have forestalled the global pandemic,” the report says.

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Global tensions undermined both the WHO and other multilateral organizations and cooperation. The report does not specifically mention the strain on relations between the United States and China, as the Trump administration sought to cast blame for the virus’s origins overseas. 

The report highlights some nations that did well in containing the virus, and it pointedly notes that a nation’s wealth did not predict its success in halting the spread. Through all of last year, the wealthiest country on earth — the United States — suffered more disease and death than all other nations. 

The panel recommends high-income nations commit at least a billion doses of vaccine to low- and middle-income countries by the beginning of September, and two billion by the middle of 2022. Dozens of nations have yet to receive their first shipments of vaccine, and most of the world does not yet have sufficient vaccine supplies to make a real dent in the epidemiological curve. They called on members of the G-7 to provide 60 percent of the $19 billion it would cost to produce vaccines, diagnostic tests and therapeutics to fight the virus. 

The panel also called on WHO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to urge countries with the capability to produce vaccines to transfer the technology to do so to other nations on a voluntary basis. If those nations do not agree to do so voluntarily, the panel said the WTO should waive intellectual property rights.  

Going forward, the panel urged the creation of a Global Health Threats Council led by heads of state. Those heads of state, they said, should adopt a special declaration at the U.N. General Assembly in September to radically prioritize pandemic preparedness.

“The current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic. And 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,” Sirleaf said in a statement. “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.”