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Expert panel says pandemic was preventable

An independent expert panel faulted the World Health Organization and world leaders with a slow-moving response to the coronavirus pandemic.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a 2019 IAEA conference in Vienna
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a 2019 IAEA conference in Vienna (AN/Dean Calma)

GENEVA (AN) — An independent expert panel faulted the World Health Organization and world leaders on Wednesday with a slow-moving response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 13-member panel appointed by WHO's director-general to examine why COVID-19 became a global health crisis concluded it was a "preventable disaster." It found the U.N. health agency was "underpowered," its alert system too slow, and its inspectors "hindered" by a lack of unrestricted rights to enter any nation and fully investigate outbreaks.

"The earliest possible recognition of a novel pathogen is critical to containing it," the report said in its 86-page report. "The emergence of COVID-19 was characterized by a mix of some early and rapid action, but also by delay, hesitation, and denial, with the net result that an outbreak became an epidemic and an epidemic spread to pandemic proportions."

Notably among the panel's review of WHO documents, interviews with officials and study of relevant research is a detailed reconstruction of how the virus quickly spread from Wuhan, China to the world starting in December 2019.

“Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic. And if we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time," said former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who co-chaired WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response along with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Johnson Sirleaf said the United Nations and capitals around the world — hampered by a vacuum of global leadership — had storage rooms with shelves full of information from unheeded reports and reviews of previous health crises. "Had their warnings been heeded, we would have avoided the catastrophe we are in today," she said. "This time must be different.”

The panel stressed the extreme inequities of the pandemic, which has infected 160 million people and killed 3.3 million people worldwide — 45% of all deaths are in the U.S., Brazil, India and Mexico alone — and caused the biggest economic shock since World War II. "Most dispiriting is that those who had least before the pandemic have even less now," the report said. "People living in the poorest countries are at the tail end of the vaccine queue."

It said up to 125 million more people were pushed into extreme poverty, 72 million more children were at risk of illiteracy from school closures, and gender-based violence rose to record levels. But the world already has the tools it needs, Clark said, to put an end to the severe illnesses, deaths, and socioeconomic damage caused by COVID-19. "Leaders have no choice," she said, "but to act and stop this happening again.”

'No choice but to act'

In January, the panel faulted WHO and other nations, notably China, where the virus was first detected, in a report that found many early “lost opportunities” to head off the pandemic. It said WHO and other health authorities could have issued “more timely and stronger warnings of the potential for human-to-human transmission.”

In its latest report the panel recommended strengthening WHO’s power to investigate outbreaks and urged WHO and World Trade Organization officials to discuss ways that vaccine manufacturers and governments can spread the intellectual property and technology needed to increase COVID-19 vaccine access. It also advised limiting WHO’s director-general to one seven-year term, instead of two five-year terms, as a preventive measure against geopolitical tensions. Tedros, a public health expert who once headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, faced intense scrutiny from former U.S. President Donald Trump for appearing to go too easy on China.

An expert in public health law, Lawrence Gostin, who was not a member of the panel, said it made some bold proposals but abdicated responsibility to hold organizations and people to account for their failures. "The panel fails to call out bad actors like China, perpetuating the dysfunctional WHO tradition of diplomacy over frankness, transparency and accountability," said Gostin, a professor who directs Georgetown University's O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

"The report's recommendations also fall short of actionable steps that would bring about real change for the World Health Organization," he added. "While pointing out the failures of the status quo, it ultimately gives WHO no real power to enforce state compliance to prevent the next pandemic."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesuscases said the report resulted from "an entirely independent process" that was requested at last year's World Health Assembly, and it would studied as one of "a suite of reports reviewing different aspects of the pandemic" and the 194-nation organization's response to it.

"We look forward to working with our member states," Tedros said, "to discuss the recommendations of this panel and the other committees to build a stronger WHO and a healthier, safer, fairer future for all of us."