The independent group of experts created by the World Health Organization (WHO) to review the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic has released an interim report this week to account for its progress since its first meeting. In it, the group says that the world was “not prepared for the pandemic” and questions the initial management of the coronavirus outbreak that appeared in the city of Wuhan, saying that “stronger” measures could have been taken in January 2020.
“Analysis of the initial chronology of the early phases of the outbreak seems to indicate that it could have reacted more quickly when the first signs appeared by means of a reinforced and immediate response to new information about the spread of the virus”, the document says.
However, the group – led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark – makes clear throughout the pages that their work is still “unfinished” and that they continue to collect information. They hope to present a new report in May.
As they state, a “detailed” analysis of the chronology of the first events in the appearance of COVID-19 gives “reason to believe that the opportunity to apply basic public health measures in a more timely manner was lost.”
“What is clear to the group is that China’s local and national health authorities could have implemented stronger public health measures in January,” experts say. “It is also clear that by the end of January 2020 there was already evidence of cases in several countries. All countries that detected probable cases should have implemented immediate public health containment measures. They did not.”
According to the information analyzed, they continue, “only a few countries took full advantage of the information available to respond to the evidence of an emerging epidemic.” With the information available from Wuhan, they do consider that “the local, commercial and last generation sequencing carried out at the end of December 2019” allowed to obtain “the first indications of a new virus responsible for the cases of pneumonia of unknown origin” detected.
They also indicate that once the first period of the epidemic has passed, it is clear that the volume of infections in all countries “was higher than reported.” “The resulting lack of visibility over much of the epidemic facilitated its global spread: simulations carried out show that air traffic connections predicted the worldwide spread of the virus during the early phase of the epidemic.”
This Tuesday, the co-chairs have reiterated in a virtual press conference that one of the tasks of the group is to identify the lessons learned, “not to blame.” “We can all agree that we do not want our world to be in this terrible situation again. Our task is to look back, with the benefit of hindsight, to the areas that emerge as gaps in the answer; and look forward. to recommend ways to fill in those gaps, “said Helen Clark.
“It is easy to find gaps in the early response to an outbreak when the situation is studied retrospectively, but it is much more difficult to make a correct judgment when the information is new and, from a scientific point of view, uncertain and incomplete,” the group maintains. in the report. Despite everything, experts consider that there are “important lessons to be learned from the knowledge that was had, and from the actions that were taken.”
A powerless WHO in the midst of a pandemic
The experts repeat throughout the report that the WHO, questioned during the pandemic from some sectors for its management and the target of attacks by the outgoing US president, Donald Trump, “has lacked power” to do the work that is expected of she. They say it is “astonishing” that the United Nations agency “is subject to such serious limitations in its power to validate reports of infectious outbreaks taking into account their pandemic potential and to be able to deploy means of support and containment locally.”
“The bottom line is that WHO has no voluntary enforcement or investigative powers within a country. When it comes to a potential new disease threat, all WHO can do is ask and hope to be invited. We are wondering if that’s enough, “said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Among other things, they place special emphasis on the organization’s financing deficiencies, “constantly forced to seek funds.” “In general, Member States look to WHO for leadership, coordination and guidance, but they do not provide it with the authority, access or funding to do so. This is clearly not working. We are carefully analyzing this,” he explained. Johnson, who believes that the WHO “is reformable.”
Experts continue to inquire into what measures the WHO, as well as other actors, could have taken so that the countries’ response would have been “more forceful”, especially between the beginning of February and the beginning of March last year.
January 30, 2020 WHO declared a public health emergency of international concernl (their highest alert level) but “based on the evidence studied so far by the group, the degree to which the countries responded to that statement was not as expected.” Nor, they say, is it clear why the WHO expert committee “did not meet until the third week of January, nor was it clear why it could not agree on the declaration” of the emergency at its first meeting.
They also question whether it would have been helpful if the WHO had used the term ‘pandemic’ earlier. “Although this term is not used or defined in the International Health Regulations, its use serves to draw attention to the seriousness of a health problem.” The WHO didn’t use it until March 11.
In this sense, the report wonders if the international system acted fast enough to detect and alert the world about this new infectious pathogen with pandemic potential. The group’s experts believe that the international alert and response system “is not fit for purpose.” “It seems to come from a bygone analog era, so it is necessary to incorporate them into the digital era.” To be able to react in days rather than weeks, “a distributed information system is required, powered by local laboratory and dispensary staff and supported by instant data collection and decision-making tools.”
Many governments around the world have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak. In general, the group believes that comprehensive reforms have not been implemented and believes that inaction “in instituting fundamental changes, despite the warnings issued, has left the world dangerously exposed, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 19 “. They also say that “it is clear that the world’s confidence in the effectiveness of WHO has never been greater.”
They call for decisive measures now and correct the inequality in vaccines
Likewise, when more than two million people have died with coronavirus, Clark has asked countries to act “with greater determination now” to stop the pandemic.
“The course correction in the management of the pandemic is necessary now. We urge countries to immediately and consistently adopt public health measures that reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19,” said the co-chair. “Detecting cases as early as possible through testing, contact tracing and isolation, and reducing spread through physical distancing and the use of masks are measures that are as relevant now as they were in the beginning. They should be used to reduce transmission, disease and death. ”
They have also expressed “their great concern” the unequal deployment of vaccines around the world that, in their opinion, clouds the “outbreak of hope” for the approval and initiation of immunization. “Whether you were born in Liberia, New Zealand, or anywhere else shouldn’t be the factor in determining your place on the vaccination list.”
“We regret that the vaccine rollout is currently favoring rich countries. A world in which high-income countries receive universal coverage, while low-income countries are expected to accept only 20% for the foreseeable future, is on the wrong track, both for justice and for the control of the pandemic. This failure must be remedied, “said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.