Without Adequate Funding, World is Vulnerable to ‘Prolonged’ COVID-19 Pandemic
Singaporean Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Global health security is dangerously underfunded, making the world vulnerable to a “prolonged COVID-19 pandemic with repeated waves affecting all countries” and future pandemics, Singaporean Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told a World Health Organization (WHO) media briefing on Wednesday.

Shanmugaratnam, who co-chairs the G20 High Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, urged global governments to pledge at least $10 billion more every year to address this and future pandemics.

His panel has recommended the establishment of a Global Health Threats Fund to mobilise money for pandemic surveillance and response.

“The current funding for global health is raised by individual global health organisations on a siloed basis. It is also largely dependent on discretionary bilateral aid. The result is a non-system of complex inefficient, unpredictable, and greatly inadequate funding,” said Shanmugaratnam.

“We need a new global mechanism to overcome these silos mobilise resources on the needed scale and predictability.”

He described the additional resources needed as “very small investments, compared to the costs of a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic” and “tiny investments, compared to the costs of future pandemics”.

“We have to move away from thinking about funding of global health security in terms of foreign aid towards thinking about it as a strategic investment that all nations must make not only for the good of the global community, but because it is in each nation’s self interest,” he added.

He also called for the “repurposing” of international financial agencies – the World Bank, IMF and other multilateral development banks – so that financing “resilience against climate change and pandemic security” are part of their core mandates.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the briefing that the COVID-19 pandemic has stabilised over the past week, “but at the very high rate of 4.5 million cases and 68,000 deaths”.

Tedros described the next three months as “a critical period for shaping the future of pandemic preparedness and response”.

WHO believes that “whatever structures and mechanisms emerge”, they have the engagement and ownership of all countries, be aligned with the constitutional mandate of WHO rather than creating parallel structures, involve partners from across the One Health spectrum, including animal, and environmental health, ensure coherence with the International Health Regulations, and be accountable to all member states, added Tedros. 

COVID-19 origins

Members of the WHO scientific team into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 authored a report in Nature on Wednesday saying that time was running out for them to complete their work.

In response, WHO’s lead on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said the global body was in the process of setting up the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) to “establish a standardised approach for studying where and when these pathogens emerge”.

However, Van Kerkhove said that the origins group had identified “numerous further studies” that needed to be conducted in its March report – and there were many scientists in China who could do these.

“One of the responsibilities of the SAGO would be to urgently prioritise what studies need to go forward,” said Van Kerkhove, adding that “we have heard from Chinese colleagues that studies are underway from some public statements that they have made recently”. 

“We want the origins work to remain scientific, transparent, urgent and inclusive, and we will continue to work with all member states to make sure that we better understand how this pandemic begin began so that we can be better prepared for future ones,” she concluded.

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies, emphasized that “there is no impediment” to the studies identified by the origins team going ahead in China.

“Chinese colleagues don’t need WHO to hold their hands through this kind of process,” said Ryan. “Those studies have been laid out. They’ve been agreed between the international team and Chinese colleagues. In fact, many Chinese colleagues do report that those studies are underway, and we very much look forward to receiving data and reports.”

He added that WHO was “very willing” to deploy the international team – or smaller, more specialised teams “as needed”.

In July, China rejected further research by the origins team – particularly into whether the virus escaped from a laboratory.

“We will not accept such an origin-tracing plan as it, in some aspects, disregards common sense and defies science,” Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the National Health Commission,  told a press conference organized by the Chinese State Council Information Office.

“We hope the WHO would seriously review the considerations and suggestions made by Chinese experts and truly treat the origin tracing of the COVID-19 virus as a scientific matter, and get rid of political interference,” Zeng added.

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