“Weak links” found at every point in pandemic response – Expert Reaction

The pandemic was a “preventable disaster”, says an international panel that reviewed the global COVID-19 response. It calls for immediate action to stop this pandemic, and investment to avert the next one.

“COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic” was produced by a panel co-chaired by Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The panel found the initial outbreak became a pandemic because of “gaps and failings at every critical juncture of preparedness.” It also praises the efforts of health workers and the key role that open data and open science collaboration played.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report.

Professor David Murdoch, Clinical Microbiologist and Infectious Diseases Physician, Dean and Head of Campus, University of Otago, Christchurch, and Co-Director, One Health Aotearoa, comments:

“The awaited review on the global COVID-19 response by a panel co-chaired by Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was released last night as a report entitled ‘COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic.’

“The aim of this independent review was to assess comprehensively the international health response to COVID-19, the experiences gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve future capacities and responsiveness.

“The report pulls no punches. It highlights how the current pandemic situation was preventable; that there was a general lack of preparedness globally despite years of warnings; that responses, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, were often sluggish; and that coordinated leadership was absent. It also highlighted the underpowered nature of the World Health Organization (WHO) and how lack of planning and gaps in social protection resulted in widening inequities.

“The panel’s recommendations focused on two areas, viz. (1) immediate actions to end the pandemic and (2) actions directed at preventing a future pandemic. The latter include the establishment of a Global Health Threats Council, strengthening the authority and financing of the WHO, improved surveillance systems, and the establishment of national pandemic coordinators.

“These recommendations apply just as much to New Zealand as to the rest of the world. While we have done relatively well in our COVID-19 responsiveness compared to other countries, we need to do much better in preparing for the next pandemic. We need agile and coordinated systems, and capability within a well-connected and skilled workforce to enable rapid response to future infectious diseases threats.

“This is a welcome report. However, it must be acted upon now. We cannot wait until after the pandemic is over.

“As this report states: ‘we have been warned.'”

Conflict of interest statement: Member, COVID-19 Vaccine Technical Advisory Group, Ministry of Health; Member, Advisory Group, Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (VAANZ); Independent Member, Clinical Trials Steering Committee, University of Oxford COVID-19 Vaccine; Member, COVID-19 Expert Advisory Network, Ministry of Health; Member, Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group, New Zealand Government.

Professor Nigel French, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University, and Co-Director, One Health Aotearoa, comments:

“It was always a matter of when, not whether, a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 would occur. Previous events, such as the emergence and global spread of HIV/AIDS and the influenza pandemics of 1918 and 2009, provided ample warning of the potential scale and devastation of infectious diseases. As did near-misses with diseases such as SARS and Ebola that were locally-devastating, but relatively contained.

“All of these diseases crossed over from animals to people at some stage in their evolutionary history, and this is a reminder of how important it is to understand and stop the human activities that lead to the emergence of new pathogens. Preventing the initial emergence of infectious diseases with pandemic potential is a difficult task, but we do know what needs to be done on global, regional and local scales to prepare for them and reduce their impact. Previously unimaginable advances in vaccine development provide us with even greater opportunities to prevent a disaster of this magnitude happening again, provided we have coordinated, global leadership.

“This report is a welcome and far reaching reminder of what we need to do to prepare for and prevent pandemics, and we hope it is a trigger for a seismic change in how we plan for and respond to future threats.”

Conflict of interest statement: Member, COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group, Ministry of Health.