World faces a ‘Chernobyl’ moment in how it responds to future pandemics

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Anne Gulland
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Nurses with a patient at the Alberto Sabogal Hospital in Callao, Peru - Martin Mejia/AP
Nurses with a patient at the Alberto Sabogal Hospital in Callao, Peru - Martin Mejia/AP
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

Countries are facing a “Chernobyl” moment in terms of how they respond to future pandemics, the co-chair of an independent expert panel has said.

The chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response – which is investigating both the WHO's and the world's response to Covid-19 – presented an interim report to the World Health Organization's executive board on Tuesday, which said that the UN health body could have acted faster and more decisively at the start of the pandemic.

However, the report also found that Covid had exposed how few powers WHO has to directly intervene in countries where an outbreak is taking place.

When asked if countries were likely to cede any power to WHO, Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and co-chair of the panel, said countries could decide to retain their “dignity” or do everything they could to ensure a disaster of such magnitude never happened again.

“When Chernobyl happened, that was a moment at the International Atomic Energy Agency when its powers were greatly strengthened, its powers of access and inspection. Is that this moment for the WHO and the global health system? The member states are going to have to face up to this,” she said.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and co-chair of the panel, said that while countries turn to WHO for leadership they have kept it “underpowered and under-resourced”.

“The WHO has no powers to enforce anything or investigate anything of its own volition within a country. When it comes to a potential new disease threat, all WHO can do is ask and hope to be invited in,” she said.

Ms Clark also pointed to the agency’s low level of funding and the dangers of relying so heavily on volatile voluntary contributions, a precariousness highlighted by the United States’ sudden withdrawal from the organisation last year.

“The funding of the WHO is woeful,” Ms Clark said, pointing to comparisons showing the agency receives less than a single hospital in New York.

“This is our global health organisation. We want it to do well, we need it to do well but it has been kept on pretty short rations.”

The panel criticised both WHO and China for their initial slow responses to the pandemic and in particular the fact it took the global health body a month from being first informed of cases of a “novel pneumonia” to declaring a public health emergency of international concern – its highest alert level.

But Ms Clark and Ms Johnson Sirleaf stressed that the delays and failures could largely be attributed to the weak position of the UN agency.

Countries also came in for criticism with Ms Clark saying “February was a pretty quiet month for action with respect to mitigating the spread of a pandemic”.

“We were living in 2020, in a highly globally interconnected world, a pathogen like this doesn't sit around … we do find the lack of concerted response in many countries in February somewhat mystifying,” she said.

China defended its own actions at WHO’s executive board meeting, saying that it immediately notified the body and took “the most comprehensive, thorough, strict prevention and control measures”.

“Facing the unknown SARS-CoV-2, China immediately notified WHO of the epidemic situation, shared the virus genome sequence at the earliest possible time and took the most comprehensive, thorough, strict prevention and control measures,” Sun Yang from China’s National Health Commission told WHO’s Executive Board.

Some paragraphs in the interim report of the panel headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf are “inconsistent with the facts,” Mr Sun said.

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