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The COVID-19 pandemic exposed dangerous failings on the national and international scale, according to an independent review ordered by the World Health Organization. The review found a range of problems, from a slow initial reaction to the coronavirus to “weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response.”
The coronavirus found a world vulnerable to the worst effects of a pandemic despite warnings from experts and a string of recent global health threats, from SARS and Ebola to Zika, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said.
COVID-19 was “a preventable disaster,” the panel said as it released its report.
Circumstances have not improved in the past year, the panel said, noting that “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.”
Problems with the global response to the pandemic began early. The WHO waited too long to declare a public health emergency of international concern, the panel said, after the reporting of an initial cluster of cases in December 2019.
National governments also wasted precious time, the report said, calling February 2020 “a lost month” when countries could have been acting to contain the coronavirus and prevent the pandemic’s worst effects.
“Global political leadership was absent,” the independent experts said.
“The combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis,” according to the panel.
COVID-19 has now claimed more than 3.3 million lives, obliterated trillions of dollars in production and worsened inequalities around the world.
Identifying a systemic issue, the report said the WHO lacks the power to investigate and act swiftly when confronted with potential outbreaks.
“Technical expert missions can be dispatched to individual countries only with their permission, and a system of preauthorization of missions has not been established,” the report said. “Often lengthy negotiations with governments for access by missions are required after an outbreak has been notified.”
The panel was convened in September, months after members of the World Health Assembly voted to require the WHO to order an independent review of the global response to the health crisis. The 13-member body is co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
“Our message is simple and clear: The current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sirleaf said.
“The shelves of storage rooms in the U.N. and national capitals are full of reports and reviews of previous health crises,” she added. “Had their warnings been heeded, we would have avoided the catastrophe we are in today. This time must be different.”
Calling COVID-19 “a terrible wake-up call,” the panel issued a string of recommendations, including a request for high-income countries to provide at least 1 billion vaccine doses to middle-income countries and more than 2 billion doses by the middle of 2022.
The panel is also urging the formation of a Global Health Threats Council and a system for outbreak surveillance that is based on full transparency. And individual countries must also do more now, the report said, to prepare for the next crisis.