Experts call for greater investment in future pandemic prevention, readiness at WHO meeting

Poor preparedness for Covid-19 cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars in economic losses. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Governments need to establish stronger procedures to trigger infectious disease response measures, said an infectious diseases expert who chairs a network that coordinates outbreak response under the World Health Organisation.

Professor Dale Fisher noted that many countries, especially those with high-income economies, failed to take advantage of early information about the coronavirus, adding that response triggers should be based on science and not country leaders' opinions.

He was speaking at the 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva on Thursday (May 26) during a roundtable discussion on the topic "Towards a new architecture for health emergency preparedness, response and resilience".

Prof Fisher, a senior infectious diseases consultant at the National University Hospital, was representing WHO's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (Goarn) at the roundtable.

Goarn is a network of over 250 institutions, including research institutes and universities, which respond to major public health incidents by deploying staff and resources to affected areas.

During the discussion, he also called for an international review of various countries' pandemic responses and for leaders to own any problems or shortcomings to improve their preparedness for future outbreaks.

He said: "Maybe there was political bickering, maybe it was just done badly, or maybe vulnerable groups or smaller ethnic groups might have been left out.

"You'd have to find out what you did well and what you did badly during the pandemic, and then go to fix it. If you don't do that strategic deliberate review, I don't think any country, at the national level, will own the problem."

Government officials and representatives from the WHO and the World Bank Group also spoke at the roundtable.

Lebanon's Minister of Public Health Firas Abiad said his country's healthcare system was put under severe strain in 2011, when it had to accommodate the 1.5 million displaced Syrians who entered the country seeking refuge.

The authorities reallocated resources to acute needs like medication supplies, reducing the budget available for hospital maintenance and prevention measures.

"That made it more difficult for us to go through the next crisis that came. When Covid-19 came, that had a large toll on our economy."

Dr Abiad said it is costlier to solve an ongoing crisis than to prepare for a future one, adding that it is important not to lose sight of longer-term needs even while dealing with pressing concerns.

Ms Priya Basu, head of secretariat of the Multilateral Leaders Task Force on Covid-19 at the World Bank Group, said poor preparedness for Covid-19 cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars in economic losses.

Even as the pandemic comes under control in many countries, there is an urgent need to fund further investments in health systems before the momentum from Covid-19 is lost, she said.

"We've faced many health crises in the past, from avian influenza to Sars, to Mers to Ebola, and each time we've talked about investing seriously in pandemic prevention, preparedness and response," Ms Basu said.

"Money has been provided, but it's not been sustained. Now's the time to really take multilateral collective action to change that, and if we don't do that now, we will never be able to do it."

Dr Maria Endang Sumiwi, director-general for public health at Indonesia's Ministry of Health, called for greater knowledge sharing and technology transfer in the development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tools to lower- and middle-income countries.

"Despite our financial position, Indonesia could not mitigate Covid-19 transmission at the very early stage of the pandemic," she said, adding that money alone is not enough.

"Back then, we simply did not have the access to medical and public health countermeasures, such as vaccines and even personal protective equipment, to keep our healthcare workers safe."

Other speakers at the session included WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Dr Loyce Pace, assistant secretary for global affairs at the United States Department of Health and Human Services; Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, regional director of WHO's regional office for the eastern Mediterranean; and Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme.

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