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Coronavirus

WHO panel urges more vaccine aid and steps to avoid COVID repeat

Report says time between outbreak and emergency declaration was 'too long'

Workers offload boxes of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines delivered to Cambodia under the WHO's COVAX initiative in March.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- A World Health Organization-appointed panel on Wednesday called for rich nations to do more to promote equitable vaccine access, as well as steps to ensure greater accountability in future viral outbreaks.

In an 86-page report, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response advocates a new global health surveillance system that would give the WHO the authority to issue warnings without the approval of the country where an outbreak occurs.

It also says the WHO should have "the power to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential with short-notice access to relevant sites, provision of samples, and standing multi-entry visas for international epidemic experts to outbreak locations."

The report comes after the WHO was criticized for a slow response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019.

"The report demonstrates that the current system -- at both national and international levels -- was not adequate to protect people from COVID-19," the panel said. "The time it took from the reporting of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in mid-late December 2019 to a Public Health Emergency of International Concern being declared was too long."

Early cases linked to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, became public when the local health commission warned hospitals of an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown origin, according to the report. The notice was reported by a local news outlet on Dec. 31, 2019, and picked up by the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, which in turn alerted the WHO.

The WHO, however, only declared a health emergency on Jan. 30, by which time there were 98 cases in 18 countries besides China.

The world body's sluggish response drew a backlash from countries including the U.S., which accused it of paying deference to China. Then U.S. President Donald Trump called the organization "very China centric" and later withdrew funding -- a move current leader Joe Biden reversed.

The panel's recommendations on accountability also call for governments to appoint "national pandemic coordinators" with mandates to oversee both preparedness measures and responses.

On vaccines, the report nudges high-income countries with supplies to contribute to developing nations via the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative, known as COVAX.

Another request is for major vaccine producers to agree to voluntary licensing and technology transfers. And the panel wants Group of Seven countries to fund 60% of the $19 billion required for a WHO-led initiative to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines within this year.

The 13-member panel was led by Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia.

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