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WHO independent panel slams slow Covid-19 response

Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, United Nations Development Programme Administrator (UNPD), speaks during the opening of the second Ministerial Review Conference on the Geneva Declaration on armed violence and developement, in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, October 31, 2011. (KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

A panel of experts who reviewed how the outbreak became a pandemic, “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 World Health Organization was under-powered. The response has exacerbated inequalities. Global political leadership was absent,” as stated in a report released on Wednesday.

The independent panel, which was made up of international experts and former heads of state, was established by the WHO in July last year following a resolution adopted at the World Health Assembly to examine the cause and response of the coronavirus pandemic. It was made up of  international experts and co-chaired New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark and Liberia’s former president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Lack of preparedness at all levels. For the experts, the pandemic could have been stopped if declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which is the formal declaration by WHO of an "an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response", earlier than it was.

“It is a disaster which our panel believes could have been averted," said co-chair and New Zealand's former Prime-Minister Helen Clark at the press briefing launching the report

“The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented,” added  former president from Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also co-chair of the panel.

Clarke and Sirleaf both iterated that national and international systems were not adequate to  protect people from Covid-19.

Although declared on 30 January 2020, the panel believes February was a lost month to prevent the pandemic due to countries’ reluctance to take firmer actions to contain the virus.

Beyond the response from states, the panel found that the global health system, particularly the WHO as it currently stands, would be inadequate to prevent another highly infectious pathogen such as SARS-CoV-2 from leading to a pandemic.

“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 Sirleaf.

The panel also criticised restrictive health laws that hindered the UN health agency, whilst suggesting that the current WHO director general should be limited to a non-renewable seven-year term, rather than the current five year term, which can be renewed once.

Suggesting to limit the tenure of the WHO chief is to reduce political pressure faced by the leader of the organisation. Last year, then US president Donald Trump hammered in on Ghebreyesus   and the health agency for the handling of the pandemic and alleged plotting with China.

The panel said that the global disease surveillance system and WHO should be revamped by strengthening the organisation’s role.

“WHO should have the powers necessary to investigate outbreaks of concern, speedily guaranteed rights of access, and with the ability to publish information without waiting for member state approval,” Clark said.

Highlighting inequalities. One of the key findings of the report is that “the lack of planning and gaps in social protection have resulted in the pandemic widening inequalities with a disproportionate socioeconomic impact on women and vulnerable and marginalized populations, including migrants and workers in the informal sector”.

Emphasising this “social and economic divide”, Clarke noted “the need to invest in preparedness and response to empower the WHO and to ensure ongoing political commitment to the investments required is now not just some theoretical construct, is a very real need”.

“Covid-19 must not evolve into a neglected pandemic, which is controlled in wealthy countries, while those with lesser means face border closures and years of waiting to access vaccines,” she added.

Covid vaccines have been a heated topic for discussion due to intellectual property (IP) rights, hindering scale-up of manufacturing.

The panel made recommendations and called for immediate actions to speed up vaccine production and distribution. “The World Trade Organization (WTO) and WHO should convene major vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers to agree to voluntary licensing and technology transfer for COVID-19 vaccines,” the report stated.

Sirleaf said: “If actions do not 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.”

Things are however looking up as the US recently backed the motion for temporarily waiving IP restrictions.

Read also: US supports TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines

As the panel pressed on the issue of waiving IP rights, they also called on wealthier nations who currently have an excess number of vaccines to donate one billion doses by 1 September to the Covax equitable vaccine sharing scheme.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been almost 160 million confirmed Covid cases and over three million deaths worldwide, according to WHO data.

To avoid another similar situation in the future,, Clark, said “we need to invest in preparedness and response to empower it”.

“This should not happen again. Another dangerous pathogen could happen tomorrow. The world should be ready for the next,” Sirleaf added.