More than two years after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, a group of renowned experts are calling out international leaders over how they failed to prevent world's deadliest outbreak.
Key findings: In The Lancet Commission published Wednesday, authors detailed “massive global failures” that led to more than 6.9 million reported deaths and ultimately an estimated 17.2 million deaths, as reported by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Some highlights:
They found widespread failures in prevention, transparency, basic public health practices, and international cooperation and solidarity.
Authors argued governments were too slow to respond to COVID-19, paid little attention to vulnerable communities, and fueled misinformation with lackluster or confusing messaging.
Ending the pandemic will require all countries to adopt a “vaccination-plus" strategy, work simultaneously with other nations, and strengthen national health systems and preparedness plans, the authors say.
“We must face hard truths,” said commission chair Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and president of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. “The staggering human toll of the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic is a profound tragedy and a massive societal failure at multiple levels.”
Who are the authors? The report was written by leading experts in public policy, international governance epidemiology, vaccinology, economics, international finance, sustainability and mental health, in consultation with over 100 contributors from 11 global task forces.
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Lack of cooperation between governments
Key takeaway: International governments should have been aligned in their pandemic responses, but the commission argues this turned out to be one of their most prominent failures.
Authors said world leaders needed to coordinate with each other on policies including travel protocols, testing, public health mitigation measures, commodity supply chains, data and reporting systems, and public messaging.
This lack of coordination was also evident when vaccines became available as governments failed to manage intellectual property rights, technology transfer, international financing, allocation, and campaigns in lower-middle income countries. This last point, the commission argues, came at “a great cost in terms of inequitable access.”
The report also criticizes governments for being too slow to respond to the viral threat. Authors praised the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific region, including countries like China and New Zealand, that adopted a containment strategy for the first two years of the pandemic.
In China, this strategy was known as the “zero-COVID strategy” and emphasized aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolating to keep transmission low. The commission says this strategy was successful at suppressing mortality but was later abandoned during the omicron variant wave, leading to more deaths.
Key takeaway: Commission authors criticize policy decisions, asserting they weren’t informed by evidence-based data and didn’t address the unequal effect of the pandemic.
These policy failures impacted burdened groups like essential workers, low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, children, and women, who all faced higher unemployment, safety and income losses that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Authors argued policies also contributed to public opposition to health measures, like wearing face masks and getting vaccinated, which reflected a lack of social trust and low confidence in government advice.
Inconsistent messaging also fueled public opposition, which the report said led to extensive misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
World Health Organization failures
Key takeaway: The report also partly blames the World Health Organization for acting too cautiously and slowly in its response to the growing threat.
As a leader in international health, authors argue the agency was too slow in warning about human transmissibility, declaring a public health emergency of international concern, supporting international travel protocols designed to slow spread, endorsing public health measures and recognizing airborne transmission.
“In the swirl of uncertainty during the COVID-19 outbreak, WHO ... repeatedly erred on the side of reserve rather than boldness,” they said.
WHO responded to the commission’s criticisms in a release Thursday, saying the authors did not “convey the full arc of WHO’s immediate, multi-year, life-saving response.” The agency said it repeatedly warned of the potential of asymptomatic human-to-human transmission, citing updated surveillance guidance in late January.
How to end the pandemic
Experts say there are three things that will pull the world out of the pandemic:
Implementing a “vaccination-plus” strategy
Strengthening national health systems and preparedness plans
On vaccinations: The “vaccination-plus” strategy should combine mass vaccination with available and affordable testing, treatment for new infections and long COVID, public health measures, safe work places, and economic support for self-isolation.
On multilateralism: Governments should also establish stronger means of cooperation and coordination, which also means incorporating a new pandemic agreement to prepare against future emerging infectious diseases, the report said.
On preparedness: The authors call for countries to revamp their national health systems by bolstering relationships with local and community organizations, surveillance and reporting systems, robust medical supply chains, health education, and effective communication strategies, among others.
“We have the scientific capabilities and the economic resources to do this,” Sachs said. “Now is the time to take collective action that promotes public health and sustainable development to bring an end to the pandemic.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID response failures: What went wrong? Experts explain in Lancet