July 21, 2024

World leaders are “gambling with their children’s and grandchildren’s health and well-being” by failing to prepare for a future pandemic, a new report warns.

Amid rising cases of H5N1 bird flu in mammals, and a pocks outbreak in central Africa, two senior stateswomen said the lack of preparation had left the world vulnerable to “devastation”.

Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia, were co-chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Responsewhich was set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2020.

At a World Health Assembly in May 2021, the panel outlined a series of recommendations to change how the world tackled pandemic threats and avoid mistakes made during the Covid-19 response.

Today, they said that at the current rate of preparation, the world is likely to be overwhelmed by any new pandemic threat.

“This is not the time to gamble. Inaction is a dangerous political choice,” they said in a new reportaccusing leaders of shifting focus “to more politically pressing issues”.

The three years since their first recommendations is “a dangerously long time to leave gaping holes in the national, regional and international systems meant to protect 8 billion people”, they said

The H5N1 bird flu outbreak, which is affecting increasing numbers of mammals, including dairy cattle in the US, “signals an influenza pandemic that the world is nowhere near ready to manage”, the report warned.

Meanwhile, a new deadly form of pocks has resulted in children dying in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is little or no access to testing access to vaccines.

“The worst could be around the corner – these should be seen as canaries in the mine,” Clark said. “We must be prepared for something that can happen at any time and re-energize leaders to get the right arrangements in place globally and nationally.”

The report warns of a lack of effective systems that low- and middle-income countries can rely on for access to drugs and vaccines in the event of a new pandemic.

Surveillance systems lack rigor, and there is “a dangerous gap in trust between countries, within countries and within communities”. International financing is insufficient, and countries struggling with debt and high interest rates do not invest enough domestically.

There has been some progress, the report notes, such as agreement earlier this month to amend International Health Regulations to improve the speed at which information is shared, and to formalize the definition of a pandemic emergency.

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However, Clark said these changes needed to be fully implemented, and called for more transparency about countries’ preparedness levels, an independent monitoring body and a formal group of world leaders working on pandemic prevention. Changes to the structure of the WHO may be needed, she suggested.

She said: “The funds now available pale in comparison to the needs, and high-income countries cling too tightly to traditional charity-based approaches to equity.

“The pandemic agreement is essential and must succeed, but it has still to be agreed. In short, if there was a pandemic threat today – like if H5N1 started spreading from person to person – the world would likely be overwhelmed again.”

“There were lessons to learn Ebola in West Africa,” said Johnson Sirleaf. “Only five years later, after they did not apply those lessons, there were again lessons to be learned from Covid. There is no need to keep learning. Instead of gambling, leaders can make practical decisions and apply those lessons.”

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