World’s Pandemic Response: Tall on Principles But Short on Plans
Germany’s health minister, Dr Karl Lauterbach and WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan

Amid criticism that the World Health Summit was ‘speed-dating for consultants’, panellists lamented a lack of practical plans to empower local service delivery

A more empowered World Health Organization (WHO), stronger health local systems and better surveillance are some of the weapons that will protect the world against future pandemics, according to panellists at the World Health Summit in Berlin.

“The WHO needs more powers to deal with pandemics. Isn’t there something ridiculous about the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency can go into a war zone and inspect what’s happening in a nuclear power plant and WHO doesn’t have an absolute right to get visas to go to the site of any outbreak anywhere in the world?” said Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and co-chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. 

She was referring to how China denied WHO-appointed experts access to the outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan.

“The International Health Regulations need to be made fit for purpose and empowering the WHO on very practical issues like that,” said Clark, who also asserted that “it was not the WHO that failed the world. It is member states that failed the WHO.” 

No one had a plan

Germany’s health minister, Dr Karl Lauterbach, said that when his country assumed leadership of the G7, it was clear that no country had a plan on how to address pandemics. To get a better understanding of the gaps, he convened three informal meetings of scientists.

What emerged, said Lauterbach, were two key consensus points: first, “we are lacking a workforce which is better prepared to recognise a possible pandemic and to avoid that an outbreak becomes a pandemic” and second, a lack of surveillance to identify a pandemic Lauterbach appealed for everything to be geared towards addressing these two crucial needs – and training young people to “get them interested in pandemic control”. 

“We will either spiral upwards or spiral downwards. If we spiral downwards, we will have more climate change, and more pandemics because of climate change. We will have poorer primary health because of climate change and pandemics and we will have more wars because all of this is happening.”

‘Last mile of delivery is first mile of health security’

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO executive director of health emergencies,  agreed that “without data, you’re blind and without a workforce, you have no capacity to act”.

However, he added that “95% of people who survive natural disasters survive because their neighbours and their families dig them out from under a building or pull them out of the water”. 

“That’s exactly the same principle in epidemics. It is local, community-based surveillance, point-of-care diagnostics, the ability to understand there’s a problem in the community and the rapid provision of support to a community before an outbreak becomes a national or global event,” said Ryan.

The “last mile” of health care was also the “first mile of health security” – and often the weakest link.

Describing the health summit as “speed dating for global consultants”, Ryan said that things were very different at the country level where Ministries of Health were “usually underfunded, and the weakest ministry in government”.

“Then we come in with our vertical systems and we start pushing everyone: ‘you must do this and you must do that. We have decided this is best for you’. How paternalistic is that?” Ryan said, appealing for attention to “that principle of service to the people” – and humility.

South Sudan Minster of Health Elizabeth Chuei receiving a COVID-19 vaccine after delivery from COVAX.

‘Little white, northern cabals’

He also took aim at “many unelected individuals around the world who live in their little, white northern cabals who like to sit in rooms and decide what the future of global health is going to be”.

“The reality is 194 ministers of health come together every year in Geneva, and they set out under democratic principles, what are the policies for the world and we need to continue to invest in that,” said Ryan.

“We’re a flawed organisation. But we are radically transparent and we are open. Everything we do is on the table. Everything we do is out there for criticism. I wish it were the same for other entities and institutions.”

He also blamed any failures in the global vaccine delivery platform, COVAX, on “the greed of the north”, “the greed of pharmaceutical industry” and “self-interest in certain member states” that were not prepared to share.

“COVAX went against that trend, and COVAX tried in its best way to represent that need around the world,” said Ryan, adding that he and others often worked “26 hours a day” to address the pandemic and sometimes needed to be “peeled off the wales”.

Principles not plans

Professor Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown University in the US said there was a need for “better governance” of the WHO.

“We need to have more honesty and stewardship, transparency and openness, most important, inclusive participation, effective performance monitoring benchmarks, quality improvement, accountability, and the most important thing is equity,” said Gostin.

German health ministry official Björn Kümmel, who has driven the re-financing of the WHO as co-chair of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Sustainable Financing, said that his country would like to “enable WHO not only financially but also technically, potentially legally through new mechanisms in the IHR and obviously, the pandemic treaty, and politically also vis a vie other global health agencies or other actors who are engaging in global health”. 

However, Kummel conceded that “nobody seems to have a plan”.

Discussion was largely about “principles” – such as “better governance, trust, transparency, acceptance of criticism, [ensuring] the voice of civil society, equity, community intelligence systems.

“All the big words that were mentioned here, I think it’s clear that none of us seems to have the right plan.”

Image Credits: UNICEF.

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