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Panel finds world not prepared for COVID-19; China, WHO acted too slowly

An independent World Health Organization panel said in an interim report that also says both the U.N. health body and China acted too slowly to stop the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
An independent World Health Organization panel said in an interim report that also says both the U.N. health body and China acted too slowly to stop the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The world was not prepared to battle the coronavirus, an independent World Health Organization panel said in an interim report that also says both the U.N. health body and China acted too slowly to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The report published Monday by The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response found failures at multiple levels of government and health organizations that allowed the death toll and impact of COVID-19 to grow.

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"For all that our institutions and systems have sought to respond to the pandemic ... the sobering fact is they have been no match for the virus and the speed with which it has spread across the globe," the panel wrote in the report. "Despite the myriad shining examples on every continent of human ingenuity in response to the virus, we have failed in our collective capacity to come together in solidarity to create a protective web of human security."

The 13-member panel, created through a WHO resolution passed last spring, said it has already become clear the worst of the pandemic lies ahead, urging for the immediate adoption of decisive and effective action to save lives and reduce overall damage.

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The panel said it found that public health measures known to curb the pandemic such as early case detection, contact tracing, physical distancing and mask wearing were not widely enforced in many countries,

"The failure to apply such measures is continuing to result in an unacceptable toll of death, illness and transmission," the report said.

It also said the current pandemic alert system is "slow, cumbersome and indecisive," the international response has deepened inequalities within nations and between them, there has been a failure to take the existential risks posed by the threat of pandemics seriously and that the WHO is underpowered to do what it is expected of it.

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"The panel believes that the COVID-19 pandemic must be a catalyst for fundamental and systemic change in preparedness for future such events, from the local community through through to the highest international levels," it said.

The disease, which has since since spread around the world infecting more than 95 million people and killing more than 2 million, was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December of 2019.

Both China and the WHO have been criticized over their response to the pandemic, and the United States has consequently withdrawn its membership from the U.N. health body, accusing it of aiding the Asian nation in covering up its initial outbreak of the virus.

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The report said there were "lost opportunities" to apply basic public health measures at the earliest opportunity, stating both China and WHO reacted too slowly to the initial outbreak.

"What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January [2020]," the report said.

Concerning the WHO, the report said it was unclear why it waited until Jan. 22 of last year to convene the first meeting of the Emergency Committee and why it was unable to agree to declare a public health emergency of international concern until Jan. 30.

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The panel said it is still considering what actions the WHO and governments could have taken that may have resulted in more forceful action, including whether it would have helped if the WHO had described the outbreak as a pandemic earlier, which it waited until March of 2020 to do so.

"Although the term pandemic is neither used nor defined in the International Health Regulations, its use does serve to focus attention on the gravity of a health event," it said.

Overall, the panel said that it is "overwhelming evident" that choices made at both national and subnational levels "have shaped the severity of the epidemic in each country," stating that there is not a simple formula that can be applied to all nations that would guarantee response success.

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"Rather, there is a complex interaction between technical and other capacities and political and decision-making systems, which determines the willingness to take action," it said.

The panel is to deliver its final report in May at the 74th World Health Assembly.

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