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Slow WHO, poor coordination ‘to blame for pandemic’

New Delhi | Updated on May 12, 2021

Independent expert panel demands funds, efforts to stop Covid-19 spread

A “toxic cocktail” of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system allowed the Covid-19 pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis, said an Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR).

The panel, established by the World Health Organization chief last year, was also critical of the WHO’s reaction time in calling a pandemic.

“The time it took from the reporting of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in mid-late December 2019 to a Public Health Emergency of International Concern being declared was too long. February 2020 was also a lost month when many more countries could have taken steps to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and forestall the global health, social, and economic catastrophe that continues its grip,” the panel said. “The system as it stands now is clearly unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which could emerge at any time, from developing into a pandemic,”it added.

Demands many measures

Jointly chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 2011 Nobel Peace laureate, the panel made “bold recommendations” to redistribute, fund, and increase the availability of and manufacturing capacity for vaccines, and to apply proven public health measures urgently and consistently in every country. It also recommended measures to strengthen the WHO in terms of financing, independence and authority to deal with a crisis like the current pandemic.

Pointing out that the catastrophe could have been avoided had the early warnings been heeded, panel co-chair Sirleaf said, “Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the Covid-19 pandemic. And if we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time.”

The panel called for high-income nations to come forward and provide vaccines to the 92 low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) to deal with the pandemic. At least one billion vaccine doses no later than September 1, and more than two billion doses by mid-2022, should be made available urgently through COVAX and other coordinated mechanisms, it said.

IP waivers

Further, it proposed that the World Trade Organization and WHO bring major vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers together to agree on voluntary licensing and technology transfer arrangements for Covid-19 vaccines including through the Medicines Patent Pool. “If actions do not occur within three months, a waiver of intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights should come into force immediately,” the panel said.

A recent push by South Africa and India at the WTO to waive intellectual property rules and allow generic manufacturers to make Covid-19 vaccines continues to run into opposition. India — among the world’s largest vaccine-makers — is itself lagging in production and delivery, and the surge in infections has constrained its vaccine exports , the report noted.

Rapid scaling up needed

Production of and access to Covid-19 tests and therapeutics, including oxygen, should be scaled up urgently in LMICs with full funding of $1.7 billion for needs in 2021 and the full utilization of the $3.7 billion in the Global Fund’s Covid-19 Response Mechanism Phase 2 for procuring tests, strengthening laboratories and running surveillance and tests, the panel proposed.

Vaccine inequity

“The vaccines available are a scientific triumph, but they must now be delivered across the globe. At the time of writing, fewer than one in 100 people in low-income countries had received a first dose — a graphic demonstration of global inequality. As the virus spreads, it is also mutating and creating new challenges,” the strongly-worded report said.

“Countries with the poorest results in addressing Covid-19 had uncoordinated approaches that devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts. Many had health systems beset by long-standing problems of fragmentation, undervaluing of health workers and underfunding. They lacked the capacity to mobilize quickly and coordinate between national and subnational responses,” the report pointed out.

Published on May 12, 2021

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