The 21st Century’s “Chernobyl moment” - Panel finds crucial failures in WHO and worldwide response to COVID-19

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The Helen Clark-led COVID-19 panel of experts has found there were crucial shortcomings in the world’s response to the deadly pandemic, which has now claimed over 3.3 million lives.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, set up by the World Health Organisation (“WHO”), released its report ‘COVID-19: Make it the last pandemic’ earlier today. Since September 2020, the Panel has set out to answer the question that has been on everyone’s minds since the beginning – What happened?

The report presents the Panel’s findings on how the pandemic occurred, the lessons to be learned, and their recommendations for strategic action now to end the pandemic and to ensure that any future infectious disease outbreak does not become a catastrophic pandemic.

The Panel’s key finding was that the situation could have been avoided. Co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf identified that "it is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response" as to why we have found ourselves in this position today. It was clear to the Panel that the world was not prepared for the pandemic and had ignored countless warnings from public health officials and infectious disease experts about the potential for an outbreak.

It took over six weeks for WHO to characterise COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern from the date of the first COVID-19 case. The Panel concluded that the majority of the world did not respond to this declaration with enough urgency or forcefulness, despite the mounting evidence that a highly contagious new pathogen was spreading around the globe.

It was not until a month later in March 2020 when COVID-19 was characterised as a pandemic that meaningful governmental action was taken.

The month of February has been described in the report as a ‘lost month’. Instead of preparing health care systems for an influx of COVID-19 patients, countries decided to just wait and see, adopting a ‘winner takes all’ mentality by stocking up on protective equipment and medicines. This seemed less costly and less consequential than the concerted public health action actually required.

WHO was hindered by its own regulations as travel restrictions were not able to be initially recommended due to being classed as a last resort. Helen Clark noted that "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…”.

The Panel argues that WHO should have declared the outbreak as an international emergency one week earlier when they had their first meeting. Earlier recognition of the threat may have increased the chances of containing the outbreak.

The report praises countries, like New Zealand, who took an aggressive containment strategy. Successful responses had key actions including timely triage and referral of suspected cases to ensure swift case identification and contact-tracing, and providing designated isolation facilities. Effective and high-level coordination were also critical to a country’s ability to combat the pandemic.

The report also notes that the pandemic has been one of inequalities and inequities and slams countries for vaccine nationalism. It calls out a number of high-income countries, including New Zealand, for purchasing enough vaccines to cover 200% of our population. Redistributing the vaccine is an immediate issue, one which the New Zealand Government has proactively committed to through donating 1.6 million doses to the Pacific Islands.

Helen Clark says that "it is critical to have an empowered WHO” and that WHO should be given the power to send investigators in swiftly to identify potential new outbreaks and be able to publish findings without delay.

The report identifies key reforms needed to prevent future catastrophic pandemics:

  • Establishing a new Global Threats Council with power to hold countries accountable
  • WHO to create a disease surveillance system to publish information based on full transparency
  • Future declarations of emergencies of international concern to be based on the precautionary principle
  • Governments to update their national preparedness plans against new targets set by WHO
  • Vaccines should be classed as public good and there should be a pandemic financing facility to raise funds for pandemic preparedness
  • An immediate request for the wealthy G7 nations to commit US $1.9bn to the WHO’s Covax programme which provides vaccine support to low income countries
  • An immediate request for 1 billion doses of vaccine to be redistributed to low-middle income countries by September 2021

The report also highlights the need for national health services to be reformed. It recommends public health institutions have multidisciplinary capacities and multisectoral reach with engagement of the private sector and civil society. It further recommends governments appoint a national pandemic coordinator and to strengthen the engagement of local communities. These recommendations will need to be taken into account as the Government takes steps towards establishing New Zealand’s new public health authority as part of the recently announced reforms to New Zealand’s health sector.

Health ministers will debate the findings at the WHO's annual assembly opening on May 24.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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