A new global system should be set up to respond faster to disease outbreaks, which could ensure that no future virus causes a pandemic as devastating as COVID-19, an independent World Health Organization review panel said.
The experts found crucial flaws in the global response in early 2020—including a delay in declaring an emergency, a failure to impose travel restrictions and an entire “lost month” when countries neglected to respond to warnings—that let the virus quickly spread into a catastrophic pandemic.
To address those problems, the WHO should be given the power to send investigators swiftly to chase down new disease outbreaks, and to publish their full findings without delay.
“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.”
Health ministers debated the findings at the WHO’s annual assembly opening on May 24. Diplomats say the European Union is driving reform efforts at the U.N. agency that will take time.
“We look forward to working with our member states 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,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus said.
The panel urged the WHO and World Trade Organization to convene governments and drugmakers to hammer out an agreement on voluntary licensing and technology transfers to boost vaccine production. If a deal can’t be reached in three months, then a so-called TRIPS waiver on patents should apply, it said.
Clark called for “banging heads together” to get a commitment to secure licenses along with tech and knowledge transfers.
“Let’s be clear about this. We’re dealing with pharmaceutical companies in the North that have the technology,” Johnson Sirleaf said.
Looking back at the early days of the pandemic, the experts noted that Chinese doctors had reported cases of unusual pneumonia in December 2019. The WHO picked up reports from the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and others.
But when the WHO’s Emergency Committee met on Jan. 22, it stopped short of declaring an international health emergency. That declaration did not come until eight days later, costing crucial time.