Governments around the world are no better prepared today to tackle a new global disease threat than they were just before the coronavirus outbreak began in late 2019, a World Health Organization panel concluded in a report released Wednesday. .
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has sought a review of the global approach to outbreaks, which it considers outdated and inadequate. The group, established in July 2020, made recommendations last year to improve political leadership, funding and oversight systems. But it seems that little has changed since then.
“A year on, the political focus to prepare for more waves is flagging,” wrote the authors, led by Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia. “Work has begun to prevent the next pandemic, but at the current rate, the transformational change required will take years to complete.”
The report was released ahead of the World Health Organization’s annual policy-making forum, the World Health Assembly, which starts next week in Geneva. It echoes a report published late last year that said the world remained “dangerously unprepared” for the next major disease outbreak.
The authors of the new report focused on the uneven distribution of vaccines around the world as one of the main obstacles to overcome. The problem is highlighted by the coronavirus crisis unfolding in North Korea, one of two countries, the other being Eritrea, that have yet to start vaccinating their residents. North Korea said the number of suspected coronavirus infections had approached 1.5 million on Tuesday.
WHO officials in Geneva told reporters Tuesday that uncontrolled transmission of the virus could allow new variants to emerge, a point that was reiterated by the panel’s new report.
“Variants may still emerge that our vaccines cannot handle,” the panel wrote. “The faster we vaccinate now, the less likely it is that more and more variants will emerge.”
The panel is pushing to expand the development and supply of therapeutics and diagnostic tests.
He noted that, in total, high-income countries had obtained enough doses of the Covid vaccine to vaccinate their entire population twice, through direct deals with vaccine manufacturers to buy existing supplies and future production. That left many low- and middle-income countries without adequate vaccine supplies.
Fewer than 13 percent of people in low-income countries are considered to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the report.
Germany announced plans on Wednesday to spend another $870 million to buy more vaccines to prepare for potential new variants this fall. About 80 percent of Germans are vaccinated, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.
Vaccine production is now at its limit, the panel said, adding that new manufacturing capacity for mRNA and other vaccines must be urgently built in Africa, Latin America and other low- and middle-income regions. “Boosting production takes time, so enabling it needs to start now,” the report says.
The panel applauded President Biden’s second Covid-19 summit, held virtually last week. But he said “a ‘charity’ approach is not serving the interests of ending this pandemic or addressing future pandemic threats.”