The damning assessment comes from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. A year ago, the panel reported to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s main annual assembly that poor coordination and bad decisions had allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to evolve to such a catastrophic scale. The experts also presented a long list of measures needed both to overcome Covid and ensure that the world is better prepared for similar threats in the future.
One year on, however, the panel’s follow-up assessment is that global reform efforts in this area have been too slow and fragmented.
The world, they said, is still “tinkering” with the necessary changes and that the resultant inaction was laying “the groundwork for another pandemic”.
Panel co-chair and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark said: “We largely have the very same tools and the same system that existed in December 2019 to respond to a pandemic threat.
“Those tools were not good enough.”
The assessment is not all bleak, however — with Ms Clark pointing to how mechanisms established in response to Covid have allowed the world to deliver some 1.5 billion vaccine doses to poorer countries.
The politician also praised the efforts that are presently underway to diversify the production of both vaccines as well as antivirals.
An agreement is expected to soon be reached for more secure and flexible funding for the WHO, alongside plans to establish a dedicated fund for addressing future pandemics.
Experts are also looking to make relevant changes to International Health Regulations, while negotiations are also underway to develop a treaty or other form of legal tool to help streamline the global approach to preparing for and reacting to future pandemics.
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Ms Clark said: “Transformative work required at the global level to prevent the next pandemic has begun.”
However, she cautioned, these changes are coming at a far-too-glacial pace.
The WHO budget change, for example, is not expected to come into effect for almost a decade.
Ms Clark added: “At its current pace, an effective system is still years away — when a pandemic threat could occur at any time.
“If there were a new pandemic threat this year, next year, or the year after, at least, we will be largely in the same place as we were in December 2019.”
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The warnings come as experts have flagged the increasing risks posed by the creation of deadly pathogens in laboratory settings — which could be released out into the world either by accident or deliberately by bad actors.
Last year, biosecurity and public health experts war-gamed what might happen in the event that terrorists released a genetically engineered, smallpox vaccine-proof monkeypox strain.
This exercise was a collaboration between the WHO, the US National Security Council, both the African and Chinese centres for disease control and prevention and representatives from various biotechnology and pharmacy firms
The scenario was imagined playing out for 18 months, during which more than three billion people were infected with the disease and more than 250 million died as a result.
While the fictional pandemic was just that, experts said that the exercise helped them to reach a number of useful, if grim, predictions about how the next pandemic might play out.
Their report warns: “The next global catastrophe could be caused by the deliberate misuse of the tools of modern biology or by a laboratory accident.”
When it comes to lab safety and oversight of risky research, they added, the current system “Is neither prepared to meet today’s security requirements, nor is it ready for significantly expanded challenges in the future.”
Fortunately for humanity, the recent outbreaks of monkeypox — which include, as of today, nine cases in the UK — do not appear to have the benefit of being genetically augmented.
The disease causes chills, fatigue, fever, and muscle aches initially, with more severe cases often presenting with a rash on the face and genitals. It is spread by close contact.
International public health expert Jimmy Whitworth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: “This isn’t going to cause a nationwide epidemic like Covid did.
“But it’s a serious outbreak of a serious disease — and we should take it seriously.”