Ending COVID-19 and Preparing for the Next Pandemic Threat Could Take Years at the Current Pace of Change

Former Independent Panel Co-Chairs Call on Political Leaders to Urgently Bring Fragmented Reform Efforts Together

GENEVA, NEW YORK –18 May 2022  One year after the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response recommended an urgent, evidence-based transformation of the international system to manage pandemic threats, the former Co-Chairs warn that despite having a roadmap and the know-how, the world is hardly better prepared to manage a new health threat than it was when SARS-CoV2 first emerged.  

Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Right Honourable Helen Clark are concerned about the waning political focus that is essential to end the worst of COVID-19. And, they caution that at the current pace and approach to change, it could be years before there is a reliable international system that will rapidly identify and contain a new pandemic threat, which could arise at any time.  

While there are laudable efforts to better protect everyone from the current and next pandemic threat, these remain slow, fragmented, too focused on bureaucratic processes and not enough on results,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia and Co-Chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.  

Should a new health threat arise this year, the world would largely have to draw on the same tools it had at the end of 2019,” said Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Independent Panel Co-Chair. “The weak links that we identified then still exist today, and without more concrete efforts to fix them, we could find ourselves once again scrambling to protect people from a new pandemic threat.” 

Some hopeful progress, but with caveats 

In their new one-year assessment report, entitled Transforming or Tinkering? Inaction lays the groundwork for another pandemic, the former Co-Chairs also noted the progress that has been made. 

This includes a recommendation to substantially increase the base funds Member States would guarantee to provide to WHO; plans agreed by the G20 for a new pandemic fund to be hosted at the World Bank; a process at the World Health Assembly designed to produce a new legal instrument  by May 2024, changes proposed to the International Health Regulations intended to lead to faster reporting of pandemic threats; and an international partnership that has delivered 1.5 billion doses of vaccines and other tools to poorer countries despite constraints. 

However, they also caution that these efforts – which are taking place in different organizations, with different timescales, risky processes, and, at times, inadequate charity-based approaches – will fail to result in a cohesive transformed system. What is missing now, they say, is sustained leadership of Heads of State and Government.  

The G20 consensus has led to concrete plans for an essential new pandemic fund.  The Second COVID-19 Summit, held just last week, was led by five Heads-of-State from each region, who galvanised countries, international organizations, funds, foundations, the private sector and civil society to make new commitments to tackle pandemic threats,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “Only the highest-level political leadership has the legitimacy to bring multiple sectors together in this way.” 

“UN Member States must urgently request a High-Level Meeting at the UN General Assembly to agree to a Political Declaration to set a coherent agenda to end COVID-19 and manage future pandemic threats,” said Helen Clark. “This can include the creation of an inclusive new high-level council that can lead a coherent international system to end this pandemic, and prevent another.”  

To inform this one-year report, the Co-Chairs consulted with former panelists, leading academics, civil society and other leaders working directly on the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Among their concerns they found:

  • The urgent need for countries which have begun to drive a process towards a UNGA high-level meeting, to request such a meeting urgently. 
  • Despite the ongoing risks posed by COVID-19, including continued transmission which can lead to new variants, political leadership to end the COVID-19 emergency is flagging everywhere.   

Processes initiated by the World Health Assembly, could take many years to lead to change. 

  • The increase of assessed contributions to cover 50% of WHO’s base budget, for example, aren’t planned to take full effect until 2030/2031. 
  • A new pandemic accord and amendments to the International Health Regulations may take until May 2024 or longer to be agreed, and then will require a period of time to come into force. 
  • Efforts to include all pandemic reform issues into a new legal instrument  could result in a watered-down instrument, or none-at-all. 

Critical issues, including WHO’s authority to report, and investigate health threats based on the precautionary principle, may be lost in negotiation

  • The Co-Chairs believe that if a new grave health threat arises imminently, WHO must report it rapidly whatever the status of reform of its powers. 

A ‘charity’ approach is not serving the interests of ending this pandemic or tackling future pandemic threats, whereas a global public goods approach is required for success: 

  • Less than 13% of people in low-income countries are considered fully vaccinated 
  • ACT-A still faces an enormous funding gap of US$13.64 billion, particularly for delivery of vaccines, diagnostic tests, therapies and oxygen. 
  • The new pandemic fund to be hosted at the World Bank risks being funded only through official development assistance. Instead, all countries should contribute based on an ‘ability-to-pay’ formula, from which all countries benefit for readiness and response. 

More about the Panel: The Co-Chairs led  The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response , together with 11 distinguished panelists. They spent eight months rigorously reviewing various dimensions of the pandemic. In May 2021 the Co-Chairs submitted their evidence-based landmark report entitled COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic to the World Health Assembly. They made recommendations which, taken as a package, could end the worst of COVID-19 and transform the international system in a way that could make it the last pandemic of such devastation.The Independent Panel was established by the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General in response to the World Health Assembly resolution 73.1 issued in May 2020.  

For more information:
See the Independent Panel’s website: www.TheIndependentPanel.org.     
Media enquiries
can be directed to mrabbitt@unfoundation.org or ChristineMcNab@gmail.com

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