After three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of the U.N. health agency said the world must improve primary health care, depoliticize science and strengthen cooperation – or risk repeating fatal mistakes.
"At exactly the moment when the world needed to come together to face this common threat as one, the COVID-19 pandemic has been characterized by a lack of cooperation and coordination," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.
"Instead of a coherent and cohesive global response, the pandemic has been marked by a chaotic patchwork of responses. This is because of narrow nationalism," he said. "We can only face shared threats with a shared response, based on a shared commitment to solidarity and equity."
Tedros' speech to the University of Michigan, where he received the Thomas Francis Jr. Medal in Global Public Health, offered three lessons on the pandemic. It came two days after the March 11 anniversary marking three years since WHO first said the global outbreak of COVID-19 had become a pandemic.
After three years, there have been more than 676 million confirmed cases and 6.8 million deaths, along with 13.3 billion vaccine doses administered, according to the final tally of the widely used Johns Hopkins University data tracker, which stopped collecting data as of March 10.
Tedros noted the true number of deaths is "much higher" since not all countries can register and report all deaths, and there often are delays in reporting them. Still, the world is in a better place than it was in the first half of 2020.
"We are certainly in a much better position now than we have been at any time during the pandemic," he said. "It’s very pleasing to see that for the first time, the weekly number of reported deaths is now lower than when we first used the word “pandemic” three years ago. The improvement is significant."
Tedros said he is "confident that at some point this year we will be able to say that COVID-19 is over as a public health emergency of international concern – and as a pandemic."
"What is most important now is that we all learn the lessons of the pandemic," he added. "If we do not, we will repeat the cycle of panic and neglect that has been the hallmark of the global response to epidemics and pandemics for decades."
Other leaders, such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' Secretary General and CEO Jagan Chapagain, had similar messages that the pandemic's lessons "must shape our readiness for all crises."
And 209 current and former world leaders, Nobel laureates, and others signed an open letter, coordinated by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, blaming a triumph of nationalism over multilateralism for causing massive, preventable inequities among nations' access to vaccines that have cost at least 1.3 million lives.
"We have seen extraordinary feats of scientific innovation and an enormous mobilization of public resources to develop effective vaccines, tests, and treatments. But we have also seen a global response held back by profiteering and nationalism," they wrote. "Even today, as we enter the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many developing countries cannot access affordable treatments or tests."
They called on world leaders to take "four urgent steps" to enact a global pandemic treaty; invest more heavily in scientific innovation and manufacturing in the Global South; boost spending for non-patented public research and development; and curb intellectual property barriers against knowledge and technology sharing.
Achieving 'muscle memory'
The global pharmaceutical industry, which profits from its patented products, has strongly advocated againsts loosening IP protections. It told WHO's negotiating body that key elements of the proposed pandemic treaty can "undermine both the innovation ecosystem and the immediate access to pathogens, which were critical for the record speed development and scaling up of medical countermeasures."
"Weakening IP would not lead to a better pandemic response and would be counter-productive by weakening the R&D ecosystem developing pandemic technologies," said the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, which represents 39 companies and 53 trade associations.
For Tedros, however, the pandemic's three most important lessons come down to a certain lack of preparation, objectivity, and sharing.
The first is the importance of investing in public health with the "backbone" of a robust primary health care system, he said, since having an advanced medical care system is not the same as having a strong public health system. Even some wealthy nations with the most sophisticated medical care were overwhelmed by COVID-19.
"By contrast, some middle-income countries with fewer resources fared much better, thanks to investments in public health after outbreaks of SARS, MERS, H1N1 and others. They had the muscle memory, and they did better," he said.
The second lesson is the importance of science, he said, and the harmful ways, in some countries and communities, and on social media, that "marginalization and politicization of science has impeded the response to the pandemic and cost lives."
"Masks, vaccines, 'lockdowns' and other public health measures have been deeply politicized. And the question of how the pandemic started remains unanswered," he said, pointing to questions surrounding how the virus, first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, began circulating.
"More than three years after this outbreak started, we still don’t know how, due to a lack of cooperation from China to be transparent in sharing data, and to conduct the necessary investigations and share the results," he said. "Until those studies are done, all hypotheses on the origins of the virus remain on the table."
The third less is the importance of cooperation, he said, which is why nations are negotiating a voluntary pandemic treaty "to work in cooperation with each other – not in competition – to prepare for and respond to epidemics and pandemics."
"It’s essential to emphasize that this accord is being negotiated by countries, for countries, and will be adopted and implemented by countries, in accordance with their own national laws," said Tedros. "It will not give WHO any powers to do anything without the express permission of sovereign nation states."