GENEVA – When the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) closed Monday, delegations from across the world have discussed how poorly the globe responded to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and have resolved to end this and prevent a next one with better mechanisms.
One plus year into the pandemic, worldwide cases have risen 40-fold to more than 170 million, with deaths increasing 11 times to over 3 million, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) statistics. Yet, the world is still confronted with challenges like vaccine shortage, mutations of the deadly virus, and certain countries’ politicalization of the health crisis rather than efforts to fight against it.
Serious shortcomings and thus an urgent need of improvement were exposed during this year’s WHA, the highest decision-making body of the WHO, in the world’s preparedness for timely, effective prevention of potential health emergencies and its response capability.
COVID-19 was a preventable global disaster, says a report submitted by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response on the anti-virus response by the WHO and its member states. It largely attributes the outbreak to inconsistent and underfunded preparation, which has long been crippled by an alert system too slow and too mild.
The fact that countries did not fully recognize the threat but chose a wait-and-see attitude rather than concerted public health actions, failing to understand how serious the new pathogen could be, consequently caused “a lost month” in February 2020, “when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic,” the report adds.
Even after the WHO on Jan. 30, 2020 declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, a large number of countries still did not adopt a strong containment strategy that could have forestalled the outbreak.
The virus spread, meanwhile, reveals that the uncoordinated actions by countries faced with the crisis have aggravated the inequality in access to response tools, such as personal protection equipment, diagnostic kits, therapeutics and vaccines, which needs global political leadership to address.
“One of the greatest drivers of the pandemic has been the lack of international solidarity and sharing,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his speech at the WHA opening.
“We can only address that fundamental weakness with a binding commitment between nations to provide a solid foundation for enhanced cooperation — a treaty on pandemic preparedness and response that can address the challenges outlined,” he added.
With the lessons learnt, a member states working group on strengthening the WHO’s preparedness for and its response to health emergencies has been proposed to be established on the WHA.
Findings of the International Health Regulations (IHR) Review Committee revealed that lack of compliance of states with certain obligations under the IHR, particularly on preparedness, has caused COVID-19 to evolve into a protracted global health emergency, highlighting the need of governmental responsibility to implement the IHR to the highest level.
The review committee recommends a robust accountability mechanism for evaluating and improving compliance with IHR obligations to strengthen preparedness, international cooperation and timely notification of public health events.
Furthermore, while urging member states to strengthen their core public health capacities and adopt an all-hazard, multi-sectoral approach in the preparedness for health emergencies, a WHA resolution calls on countries to notify the WHO of public health events within their territories according to IHR (2005), and continue to convey to the WHO timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public health information.
One priority of the working group will be undertaking a WHO convention, agreement or other international instruments on pandemic preparedness and response.
“China agrees with the reports’ concept of building ‘One Health’ surveillance system and the ‘whole of government, whole of society’ pandemic response approach, which aims at improving the IHR and other international legal systems,” said Chinese delegate Yang Feng at the WHA.
The virus knows no borders and the pandemic no race, Yang noted, calling for global solidarity and cooperation in building a community with a shared future for mankind.
In fighting the pandemic, China has from the very start collaborated with the WHO and actively contributed solutions to the global community, in contrast to a handful of countries, including the United States, that have been sabotaging international cooperation with the hidden political agenda, despite their own poor records of the anti-virus response.
Though it has a huge population and very tight vaccine supplies itself, China has been making contributions to the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in developing countries. China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines have been validated for emergency use by the WHO. And the country has announced the offering of COVID-19 vaccines for UN peacekeeping operations and the International Olympic Committee.
WHA delegates have expressed their appreciation for China’s positive role in global response, with those from such countries as Egypt, Mexico, Niger, Gabon, Gambia, Namibia and Sierra Leone highlighting China’s support in their fight against COVID-19.
The pandemic was an opportunity to nurture research capacity and researchers’ competencies, so Egypt participated in clinical trials to test China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, said Egypt’s Minster of Health Hala Zayed.
“I would like to highlight the significance of reaching an international strategy to improve access to medicines and vaccines with a focus on the importance of technology transfer, which Egypt has already done through constructive cooperation by resettling the vaccine industry and transferring manufacturing technology from the Chinese side,” said the minister.
The delegate from Niger also expressed gratitude to China, saying that Niger has set up an effective response mechanism with bilateral and multilateral support.
“This has allowed us to achieve satisfactory results when it comes to the management of the two waves that have affected our country,” said the delegate.
“Technical experts were shared, and anti-pandemic specialities were provided for us by Senegal and the People’s Republic of China. We thank these countries very much for their input,” said Ahmadou Lamin Samateh, minister of health of the Gambia, at the virtual meeting.
“Sierra Leone was fortunate to receive 240,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine generously donated by the People’s Republic of China,” said the country’s Minister of Health and Sanitation Austin Demby.
Addressing the WHA, Yang, the Chinese delegate, stressed China’s resolve to provide solutions. “China believes that promoting the equitable distribution of and access to COVID-19 vaccines globally is crucial to outbreak prevention and control,” he said.
China, he added, has fulfilled its commitment of providing COVID-19 vaccines as public goods by offering medical assistance to 80 countries, exporting vaccines to 43 countries and supplying 300 million doses of vaccines worldwide.
“China will continue to make its own contribution to promoting the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in developing countries,” Yang said.