Category : News
Author: Dan Satherley

Efforts to put together a global treaty on pandemic preparedness and response are taking too long, a group co-led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has concluded.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response was set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) last year to assess the response to COVID-19, and find ways to prevent it from happening again. 

Clark headed the panel with former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. On Saturday, they released the panel's ominously titled final report, Losing Time, which "lays out what needs to happen next" to end the pandemic and stop the next one. 

The World Health Assembly - the WHO's primary decision-making body - on December 1 announced it would "kickstart a global process to draft and negotiate a convention, agreement or other international instrument… to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response". It was just the second time in the WHO's history it's met for a 'special session' outside its usual schedules. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the many flaws in the global system to protect people from pandemics: the most vulnerable people going without vaccines; health workers without needed equipment to perform their life-saving work; and ‘me-first’ approaches that stymie the global solidarity needed to deal with a global threat," said Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The Losing Time report notes there "has been surprisingly little use of international treaties by WHO" compared to other global bodies like the International Labour Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Clark and Sirleaf said on Saturday the WHO's timeframe is too slow. 

"Under current planning an agreement will be presented to the World Health Assembly only in May 2024 - which will be more than four years after Dr Tedros characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic," they said.

"Given that another pandemic threat can emerge at any time, and given the gaps in the international legal framework, the lack of urgency is very concerning."

Their report, which can be read online, calls for a range of measures. In the short-term, the panel wants agreements between nations to implement "rigorous non-pharmaceutical public health measures" to fight the spread of disease; more vaccine doses from rich countries to the poor; vaccine intellectual property waivers, if voluntary agreements can't be reached; and more funding, particularly from wealthy countries, for the WHO. 


"The profit-incentivised, inequitable system for distribution of pandemic tools has led to a place where one of us lives in a country on track to fully vaccinate 90 percent of the eligible population by Christmas, and one of us lives in a country where less than 10 percent of people are fully vaccinated," said Clark and Sirleaf. 

In the future, the panel wants the WHO to have a range of greater powers - particularly in surveillance - and again, funding. 

"A Heads of State and Government level UNGA special summit is a priority, where leaders could both endorse a roadmap to put COVID-19 behind us, with equity at its core, and agree on the changes required to the global architecture," said Clark and Sirleaf. "The UNGA is also the right place to birth a Global Health Threats Council, led by Presidents and Prime Ministers and including voices from civil society, including the research community and the private sector, to promote accountability now and in future."

The independent panel's scientists also did a deep-dive into how the outbreak in China in late 2019 became a pandemic. 

They found Chinese health officials were slow to figure out that human-to-human transmission was occurring - focusing on the Huanan Seafood Market, rather than the 35-45 percent of early cases that had no links to the market; and the country's decision-makers were also slow to implement travel restrictions, waiting until after millions had travelled for Lunar New Year celebrations to properly lock down, seeding the virus widely. 

The nation's scientists were praised for quickly identifying the virus, and their efforts to sequence its genome, which allowed for tests to be developed. 

Other countries were criticised for responding "only after substantial intra-country spread was evident", ignoring the threat of asymptomatic transmission until it was too late, and even then playing down the threat. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic not only revealed and exploited gaps in current disease detection, alert, and response mechanisms, but also plainly showed that a reset of the global health and health security system as a whole is required," their analysis, published in The Lancet, concluded. "A global pandemic treaty might be a key opportunity to secure these changes."

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