World as vulnerable as ever to pandemics, expert panel concludes
By Adeel Hassan
Governments around the world are no better prepared today to address a new global disease threat than they were just before the coronavirus outbreak began in late 2019, a World Health Organization panel concluded in a report released last week.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has sought an overhaul of the world’s approach to outbreaks, which it considers outdated and inadequate. The group, established in July 2020, made recommendations last year for improving political leadership, financing and surveillance systems. But it appears that little has changed since then.
“One year on, and political focus to prepare for more waves is flagging,” wrote the authors, led by Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia. “Work has begun to prevent the next pandemic, but at the current pace, the transformative change required will take years to complete.”
The report was released before the WHO’s annual policymaking forum, the World Health Assembly, which starts next week in Geneva. It echoes a report released late last year that said the world remained “dangerously unprepared” for the next major disease outbreak.
The authors of the new report zeroed in on the uneven distribution of vaccines around the world as one of the major hurdles to overcome. The issue is highlighted by the unfolding coronavirus crisis in North Korea, one of two countries — the other is Eritrea — that have not yet begun vaccinating their residents. North Korea said the number of suspected coronavirus infections had neared 1.5 million Tuesday.
WHO officials in Geneva told reporters Tuesday that uncontrolled transmission of the virus could allow new variants to arise, a point that was reiterated by the panel’s new report.
“Variants may still emerge that our vaccines cannot manage,” the panel wrote. “The more quickly we vaccinate now, the less likelihood there is of ever more variants emerging.”
The panel is pushing to expand the development and supply of therapeutics and diagnostic tests.
It noted that all told, high-income countries had obtained enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to vaccinate their entire populations twice over, through direct deals with vaccine manufacturers to buy existing supplies and future output. That left many low- and middle-income countries without adequate vaccine supplies.
Fewer than 13% of people in low-income countries are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the report said.
Germany announced plans Wednesday to spend another $870 million to buy more vaccines to prepare for possible new variants this fall. About 80% of Germans are vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
Vaccine production is now at its limit, the panel said, adding that new manufacturing capacity for mRNA and other vaccines must urgently be built in Africa, Latin America and other low- and middle-income regions. “Boosting production takes time, so enabling it must begin now,” the report said.
The panel applauded President Joe Biden’s second COVID-19 summit, held virtually last week. But it said that “a ‘charity’ approach is not serving the interests of ending this pandemic or tackling future pandemic threats.”