New alert system sought to prevent another pandemic

World | REUTERS 14 May 2021

A new global system should be set up to respond faster to disease outbreaks to help ensure no future virus causes a pandemic as devastating as Covid-19, an independent World Health Organization review panel says.

The experts found crucial shortcomings in the global response in early 2020 - including a delay in declaring an emergency, a failure to impose travel restrictions and an entire "lost month" when countries neglected to respond to warnings - that let the virus quickly spread into a crippling pandemic.

To address those problems, the WHO should be given the power to send investigators swiftly to chase down new disease outbreaks, and to publish their full findings without delay.

"It is critical to have an empowered WHO," panel co-chair and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said on the launch of the report "Covid-19: Make It the Last Pandemic."

Co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf added: "We are calling for a new surveillance-and-alert system that is based on transparency and allows WHO to publish information immediately."

Health ministers will debate the findings at the WHO's annual assembly opening on May 24.

The panel urged the WHO and the World Trade Organization to convene governments and drugmakers to hammer out an agreement on voluntary licensing and technology transfers to boost vaccine production. If a deal can't be reached in three months, then a waiver on patents should apply, it said.

The experts noted that Chinese doctors in Wuhan had reported cases of unusual pneumonia in December 2019, with the WHO picking up reports from the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and others.

But when the WHO's Emergency Committee met on January 22, it stopped short of declaring an international health emergency. That declaration did not come until eight days later, costing crucial time.

The committee also declined to endorse international travel restrictions.

Governments, meanwhile, failed to grasp that the emergency declaration was the WHO's "loudest possible alarm," the experts said. Instead of preparing their hospitals for Covid-19 patients, many countries engaged in a "winner-takes-all" scramble for protective equipment and medicines.

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