How can we stop the next pandemic? Experts call for major changes in surveillance, alert systems

A new transparent global system should be set up for probing disease outbreaks, empowering the World Health Organization to deploy investigators at short notice and reveal findings, a COVID-19 pandemic review panel said on Wednesday.

'The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented,' co-chair of panel says

A nurse prepares equipment in an intensive care unit treating COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province, on Feb. 22, 2020. A report from a panel of independent experts called for urgent reform of pandemic prevention and response systems in the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/Getty Images)

A new transparent global system should be set up for probing disease outbreaks, empowering the World Health Organization to deploy investigators at short notice and reveal findings, a COVID-19 pandemic review panel said on Wednesday.

The WHO should have declared the new coronavirus outbreak in China an international emergency earlier than Jan. 30, 2020, but the next month was "lost" as countries failed to take strong measures to halt spread of the respiratory pathogen, the panel said.

The independent experts, in a major report on the handling of the pandemic, called for bold WHO reforms and revitalizing national preparedness plans to prevent another "toxic cocktail."

"It is critical to have an empowered WHO," panel co-chair and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark told reporters on the launch of the report COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic.

Co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former president of Liberia, said: "We are calling for a new surveillance and alert system that is based on transparency and allows WHO to publish information immediately."

The co-chairs were tapped by WHO last year to examine the UN agency's response to COVID-19 after bowing to a request from member countries. 

Some experts criticized the panel for failing to hold WHO and others accountable for their actions during COVID-19, describing that as "an abdication of responsibility."

Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University said the panel "fails to call out bad actors like China, perpetuating the dysfunctional WHO tradition of diplomacy over frankness, transparency and accountability."

'Catastrophic pandemic'

Health ministers will debate the findings at WHO's annual assembly opening on May 24. Diplomats say the European Union is driving reform efforts at the UN agency that will take time.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, was allowed to evolve into a "catastrophic" pandemic, the report said.

"The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented," said Johnson Sirleaf. "It is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response."

Chinese doctors reported cases of unusual pneumonia in December 2019 and informed authorities, while WHO picked up reports from the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and others, the panel said.

But WHO's emergency committee should have declared an international health emergency at its first meeting on Jan. 22 instead of waiting until Jan. 30, the report said.

That committee did not recommend travel restrictions due to WHO's International Health Regulations, which need revamping, it said.

"If travel restrictions had been imposed more quickly, more widely, again that would have been a serious inhibition on the rapid transmission of the disease and that remains the same today," Clark said.

'Steps could and should have been taken'

Governments failed to grasp that the emergency declaration was WHO's "loudest possible alarm" and that it has no authority to declare a pandemic, although it eventually described it that way on March 11, the report said.

"It is glaringly obvious to the panel that February 2020 was a lost month, when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic," it said.

An ambulance carries a coronavirus victim from the Diamond Princess cruise ship on Feb. 6, 2020 as it is docked in Yokohama, Japan. The outbreak on the cruise ship drew attention from around the world as countries scrambled to understand the novel coronavirus. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Instead of preparing their hospitals for COVID-19 patients, many countries engaged in a "winner takes all" scramble for protective equipment and medicines, it said.

The panel praised the "unstinting" efforts of WHO leadership and staff during the pandemic. It did not lay specific blame on China or on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom the Trump administration accused of being "China-centric," a charge he denied.

But it said that a WHO director-general should be limited to a single seven-year term, to avoid political pressure.

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The WHO and World Trade Organization should convene governments and drug makers to hammer out an agreement on voluntary licensing and technology transfers to boost vaccine production, the report said.

"If such an agreement can't be hammered out within three months, then a TRIPS waiver should apply immediately," Clark said, referring to the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

Noting the Biden administration's backing last week for a waiver, she said: "Obviously we're very encouraged by the momentum for negotiation of a waiver at TRIPS."

With files from The Associated Press

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