UN pandemic summit needed to avoid repeat of 'grotesque' failures

Independent panel warns vital time lost to ensure global readiness to withstand health shocks

A man waits to get Covid-19 shot in Austria, one of the European countries to reimpose a lockdown. AP
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World leaders must gather for a major UN summit to resolve the Covid-19 pandemic otherwise the disease could prove “devastating” for the planet, former government leaders have said.

Vital time is being lost in tackling the disease as organisations worry about “commas in committee”, said Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand.

David Miliband, former British foreign secretary, lamented that while Europe was reintroducing lockdowns after “absurd” anti-vaccine propaganda, only 5 per cent of people in the world’s poorest countries have been vaccinated. This was a “comprehensive global failure” and poor world leadership, he said.

There was also “a grotesque failure of the G20 countries to come up with significant reforms” to ensure the pandemic was defeated with vaccines, the International Rescue Committee president said.

Mr Miliband was speaking at the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response online seminar publishing an update on its initial report six months ago.

Despite some progress being made since May, there were still 90 million Covid-19 infections and 1.65 million deaths, the Chatham House event heard.

“We recommended a comprehensive package of reforms … action is vital to stop the current pandemic and to stop a future health threat from devastating the world,” former Liberia president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke of 'devastating' consequences if the world did not unite to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. AFP

That package recommended $100 billion for developing countries to tackle pandemics and receive enough vaccines, ventilators and personal protection equipment.

But instead, “waves of disease and deaths continue” with uneven vaccine coverage and very little inoculation in the poorest countries. “The world is losing vital time against a virus that continues to thrive, while we don't work urgently together,” Ms Sirleaf said.

The report, Losing Time: End this pandemic and secure the future, calculated that one billion spare vaccine doses are available but “despite impressive public pledges” by wealthy nations, only 256 million had been redistributed through Covax, the vaccine sharing initiative co-led by Gavi, the WHO and CEPI.

Vaccine doses nearing their expiry date were being dumped, the report said.

This should prove a “deep moral quandary” that while “healthy and wealthy” people were receiving third booster shots, 180,000 largely unvaccinated health workers had died from Covid-19.

Ms Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Laureate, called for a special session of the UN General Assembly to agree on “a political declaration that will provide a road map to end the pandemic and avert another”.

The huge profits made by pharmaceutical companies, which had refused to give up their intellectual property rights was heavily criticised by Ms Clark, who governed New Zealand from 1999 to 2008.

“Put bluntly, global public health shouldn't be held hostage to manufacturers who purchase patents, mainly with public money to spin them to profit,” she said.

The UN should introduce a standing provision for companies to give up their intellectual property to achieve global vaccination to fight the current and any future pandemics, she said.

Ms Clark condemned the lack of political will among G20 countries, which have failed to provide similar levels of leadership that resolved the 2008 financial crisis.

“We can't get out of this pandemic when we leave so many countries behind with such a terribly low rate of vaccine,” she said.

She called for a vaccine-plus strategy that included other anti-virus measures.

Ms Clark criticised unnecessary committee meetings while people were dying. “We urge member states to spend less time debating commas in committees while a pandemic still rages, people are dying and a new pandemic threat could arise any time and anywhere,” she said.

Despite five million dead and a global, multi-trillion economic shock, there was still inadequate global leadership, Mr Miliband said.

“We're now in the absurd situation of countries in Europe returning to lockdown because of an anti-vaccination movement at a time when the vaccination rates of the countries where the International Rescue Committee works are less than five per cent,” he said.

“This is a comprehensive global failure and there has been an inadequate collective global leadership response.”

He said the pandemic was proving “very, very costly” for the world's most vulnerable.

The report said world leaders needed to introduce reforms now so the chance to create a safer world “does not slip through our fingers”.

“We ask: if this pandemic representing a threat to the health and wellbeing of humanity worldwide cannot catalyse real change, what will?” the authors said.

Updated: November 23, 2021, 3:38 PM