The World Health Organisation should have declared a global emergency earlier than 30 January 2020 and recommended travel restrictions to prevent the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, a panel has said.
A report issued by an independent panel into the handling of the pandemic has also found the month of February last year was “lost” as countries failed to take strong measures to halt the spread of the virus.
It found the pandemic was a preventable disaster that could have saved 3.4 million lives.
And it concluded that Chinese authorities did present open data early on about what was happening, and while other countries in the area responded by tightening up movement of people, the rest of the world did nothing.
At the launch of the report which is entitled “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic”, panel co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said: “The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented.
“It is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response.”
The study also calls for bold reforms of the WHO and for national pandemic plans to be updated to prevent another “toxic cocktail” in the future.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, was allowed to evolve into a “catastrophic pandemic” that has killed more than 3.4 million people and devastated the world economy, the report added.
Chinese doctors reported cases of unusual pneumonia in December 2019 and informed authorities, while WHO picked up reports from the Taiwan Centres for Disease Control and others, the panel said.
But WHO’s emergency committee should have declared an international health emergency at its first meeting on 22 January instead of waiting until 30 January, the report said.
Also, that committee did not recommend travel restrictions, due to WHO’s International Health Regulations which need revamping, it said.
The new findings come just weeks after a whistleblower told Sky News the WHO tried to force him to change a report about Italy’s pandemic protocols.
Joint panel co-chair, and former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark said: “If travel restrictions had been imposed more quickly, more widely, again that would have been a serious inhibition on the rapid transmission of the disease.”
Analysis: Politicians in denial
By Thomas Moore, science correspondent
The first report on the global response to COVID doesn’t hold back. World leaders, it concludes, could have prevented millions of deaths if they had acted faster to the first alerts of a new virus.
It’s hard to imagine a more toxic conclusion – and it comes from two former presidents – of New Zealand and Liberia.
Instead of acting on the first warnings of a mysterious new pneumonia in Wuhan, politicians were largely in denial.
Even though clinicians in China published data in western medical journals showing the death rate was as high as 1%, many political leaders only responded when their own intensive care units began to fill up with cases.
They dismissed the science, then dragged their feet.
February was a “lost month” the report says. And by the time many countries recognised the threat it was too late. Instead the response turned into an unseemly scramble for PPE.
Every country will have to learn lessons from the pandemic. Not just how they handled the outbreak within their borders, but how the response was coordinated – or not – internationally.
The World Health Organisation was under-resourced and bound by outdated rules.
It waited too long before declaring a public health emergency. It tied itself in knots over the definition of a pandemic – and by the time it decided COVID met its criteria, the virus was far too widely spread to contain.
The Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response is determined the catastrophe never happens again.
It wants a ‘global health threats council’, led by former heads of state, to keep the attention of world leaders on the pandemic threat.
That makes sense. Political leaders could and should have kept the world safe. There were opportunities to avert a pandemic, but they were missed.
And now we are paying the price.