News COVID-19 warnings were ignored, independent review of global response finds

COVID-19 warnings were ignored, independent review of global response finds

Victorians are turning out in their tens of thousands to be tested. Photo: AAP
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An independent panel set up to review the global response to the coronavirus pandemic has found a litany of failures led to the disaster and warned another catastrophic pandemic may happen unless “urgent and vital” steps are taken.

In damning findings released on Wednesday, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said it found “weak links at every point in the chain” and global political leadership was “absent”.

The panel, set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to learn lessons from the pandemic and address future health threats, also found the WHO itself was “under-powered” and world inequalities had been exacerbated by the global response.

“As of now, the end of the pandemic is not in sight,” panel co-chair and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark said.

“It is a disaster which our panel believes could’ve been averted.”

Co-chair and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf echoed Ms Clark’s comments.

“The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented,” she said.

“It is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response.”

The panel called for bold WHO reforms and a revitalisation of national preparedness plans to prevent another “toxic cocktail”.

“We are calling for a new surveillance and alert system that is based on transparency and allows WHO to publish information immediately,” Ms Johnson Sirleaf said.

The findings will be debated by health ministers at WHO’s global assembly, which opens later this month.

“It is critical to have an empowered WHO,” Ms Clark said.

The panel said while China detected COVID-19 early in December 2019, international procedures were lacking so the warnings were not shared with the world and “valuable time was lost”.

It said WHO’s emergency committee should have declared an international health emergency at its first meeting on January 22, instead of making it more than a week later.

“Then, for the month following the declaration of the public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020, too many countries took a ‘wait and see’ approach rather than enacting an aggressive containment strategy that could have forestalled the global pandemic,” the report found.

That committee did not recommend travel restrictions due to WHO’s international health regulations which need to be revamped, it said.

“If travel restrictions had been imposed more quickly, more widely, again that would have been a serious inhibition on the rapid transmission of the disease and that remains the same today,” Ms Clark said.

‘A lost month’

Governments failed to grasp that the emergency declaration was WHO’s “loudest possible alarm” and that it has no authority to declare a pandemic, although it eventually described it that way on March 11, the report added.

“It is glaringly obvious to the panel that February 2020 was a lost month, when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic,” it said.

Instead of preparing their hospitals for COVID-19 patients, many countries engaged in a “winner takes all” scramble for protective equipment and medicines, it said.

The panel praised the “unstinting” efforts of WHO leadership and staff during the pandemic.

It did not lay specific blame on China or on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom the Trump administration accused of being “China-centric”, a charge he denied.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus faced criticism from the US during early stages of the pandemic. Photo: AAP

But it said that a WHO director-general should be limited to a single seven-year term, to avoid political pressure.

Dr Tedros said the agency would discuss the findings and recommendations with its 194 member states.

“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,” he said.