By Carolyn Reynolds and Eloise Todd
January 30 marks the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global health emergency. Yet as governments around the world have scrambled to respond and protect their citizens from the fast-moving pandemic, support for the global COVID-19 response has continued to be given short shrift. If we are going to end this devastating pandemic and make sure we are better prepared for the next one, this national near-sightedness must change now.
The frightening speed with which variant strains of COVID-19 are spreading around the globe is further proof of how highly nationalist responses to the pandemic are misguided. While it may seem intuitive for governments to first take action at home, this approach belies the fact that the virus does not respect borders. Many countries that managed to control or even stop the spread of the virus earlier are once again seeing a surge in cases. There simply is no effective domestic response without also embracing a global approach.
That’s why at the Pandemic Action Network we have been urging support for a robust, coordinated global response as the only way to hasten the end to COVID-19 everywhere and ensure that the trillions that countries are spending to try to end this crisis also help jumpstart long-ignored investments in better global preparedness to help stop the next pandemic before it starts.
Early announcements on the importance of global engagement on the COVID-19 response and pandemic preparedness from the new Biden Administration in the US, together with the plans from the Italian presidency of the G20 and the European Commission to host a Global Health Summit in May and a 5-point plan from the UK presidency of the G7, are important signals of support for a stronger international approach. Those opportunities, along with the forthcoming final report of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, offer an unprecedented political window of opportunity to act. But that window will likely close quickly as high-income countries get more of their populations vaccinated from COVID-19 and governments begin to shift their attention toward economic recovery and other needs that have been neglected during the pandemic.
Our international network of more than 90 partner organizations is calling on world leaders to own and accelerate an aggressive agenda to stop the spread of COVID-19 everywhere and leave humanity better prepared for emerging pandemic threats. The imperative to act has never been greater: this deadly and costly pandemic has affected every nation, and the next one is lurking. Leaders need to get these four things done urgently in 2021 to make the world safer:
Fully fund the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) and COVAX Facility to speed up global access to COVID-19 vaccines. If vaccines are distributed only to high-income countries first, recent estimates are that the world may only avoid one-third of COVID-19 related deaths. While political commitments made thus far toward the ACT-A and its COVAX Facility have been a bright spot of rhetorical solidarity, world leaders must act on those words to urgently close the ACT-A financing gap to accelerate widespread distribution, not only in vaccines, which are in the spotlight right now, but also of diagnostics and therapeutics which will be needed even more while supplies of vaccines build up. When it comes to vaccines, all countries should also commit to work through the COVAX Facility to exchange and donate their excess vaccine supplies to support other nations in need.
Ramp up investments in frontline preparedness. Recent estimates point to at least a US$5-10 billion annual funding gap to make the world better prepared for pandemics. This amount is likely now higher given the toll of COVID-19 has inflicted on frontline health workers and already struggling health systems around the world, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Yet this is still a small fraction of the trillions governments have spent on COVID-19 stimulus packages, vaccines, and other response measures to date. Just as the world mobilized to respond to the global AIDS crisis, this moment calls for a bold, dedicated multilateral financing mechanism to supercharge pandemic preparedness. Creating a Global Health Security Challenge Fund will support countries to close their critical health security gaps and stimulate a global “race to the top” for better preparedness. Once the ACT-A is fully funded, donor nations, private foundations, and investors should kickstart the Challenge Fund with an initial US$10 billion this year.
Bolster global research, development, and delivery of tools for emerging infectious disease threats. This crisis has shown that the world needs an at-the-ready capacity for timely delivery of the health technologies and supplies needed to combat the known and unknown diseases likely to spark the next pandemic. Leaders should secure and finance the effective Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to ensure it has the resources necessary to continue to respond to COVID-19 and also to secure its future. Building on the emerging lessons from the current pandemic, CEPI has the potential to serve as a permanent global R&D coordination hub with an end-to-end approach, working closely with the World Health Organization on the global R&D Blueprint. Leaders should also help build and/or fortify a network of regional R&D, manufacturing, and supply hubs so that every continent and every nation can quickly get the tools to stop outbreaks at their source.
Build a smarter global pandemic defense system. The WHO must be fit-for-purpose, with reliable funding, enhanced authority to conduct early and independent outbreak investigations, and the ability to hold member states accountable for compliance with the International Health Regulations (IHRs). To help “pandemic-proof” the future, the world also needs a new international preparedness framework and a state-of-the-art, global outbreak detection system to better predict and manage cross-border threats. European allies have laid out a 10-point WHO reform plan which, together with the forthcoming report of the Independent Panel, can provide the basis to achieve consensus on a more responsive global system. Pandemic preparedness should be at the top of the UN Security Council agenda, and the UN Secretary-General should convene heads of state in a global preparedness summit before the year’s end to secure their commitments to act – and enable their citizens to hold them to account.
Everyone deserves to hope for a swift end to the pandemic, regardless of where they live. But it will only be possible if our political leaders act globally as well as locally, knowing no country will be safe until every country is safe. Their shared goal should be even bigger: to leave a legacy of a healthier and safer world by taking the steps necessary to help prevent another deadly and costly pandemic from happening again.